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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Early Years of Julianne Rambeau

by Cindy Laug

Julianne (Rambeau) Vanden Wyngaard, born to Theodore and Edith Rambeau, was a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan and graduate of South High School. 

Julianne had two older half-brothers: Carl and Edward Jones. Standards and expectations were high for the children. Education was expected. Edward (10 years older) had already set the bar high by becoming a doctor. Julianne came by her ambitious spirit and eagerness for study from her father. Ted was a graduate of Dartmouth College majoring in languages. He did post-graduate work at the University of Bordeaux in France and held a teacher’s certificate for his studies at Calvin College. A life- long learner, after retiring in 1967, Ted went back to France to study for just a couple of years, traveling to Spain and then to Germany. He finished a translator school and studied economics. He finally returned to Michigan in 1987, passing away in 1989.

In those early years the Rambeau family had a small twenty-acre farm in Rockford, Michigan and dad, being a son of an Arkansas farmer, tended his hobby farm. "Dad raised us as vegetarians. In the morning we had to consume kelp and mashed up prunes, and only then could we eat breakfast. We followed a strict vegetarian diet years before that diet was considered popular."

The Piano Studio

While residing in Rockford, Mrs. Rambeau rented space in an upper floor studio at the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue. Julianne has fond memories of peering out the window at her friends playing on the street below while she hurriedly skipped through her scales. Local attorney, Floyd Skinner and Dr. Robert Claytor shared the upper floor with Mrs. Rambeau. The Collins Drug Store was below and surrounded by such well-known businesses as Kutsche Hardware, Grinnel’s Music Store, The Hub, the English Kitchen, Dodson’s Beauty Salon, the Rowe Hotel, and the U.S Post Office. Julianne recalls the Santa Claus parade ended on this corner. The studio building was replaced by the Gerald Ford government building. Today one can look up the Michigan Street hill, now known as the medical mile.

They left the farm and moved to the east side of Grand Rapids and Julianne attended Sigsbee school until second grade. Julianne recalls the troubling transition with the other kids; "first off, they advanced me a grade and then there was that long hair and braids which set me apart as being different. We then bought a home on Ionia and Franklin where I settled in at Franklin School through 6th grade and then to South High for 7-12th." Once the Rambeaus were settled in Grand Rapids, Mrs. Rambeau closed her downtown studio and taught piano from their home until she developed eye trouble in 1980’s causing her to stop teaching. She passed away in 1993.

South High School

Music opened a lot of doors once she got in 7th grade. She played every class day and graduation until she left in her senior year. Her competitive nature and desire to improve kept her vying when opportunities arose. Participating in sports was not an option due to the risk of injury to her hands. But she excelled academically and kept up socially as well. 

Julianne graduated from South High School with honors in 1955. Having won an Eastman Scholarship, she continued her piano studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, studying under Armand Basile. She would later earn her B.F.A. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1983. "I entered college with lots of confidence but Eastman would knock that out of you. Eastman had about 800 kids and you knew everyone. There was strong competition and everyone was trying to find his or her niche. We were always measuring ourselves as musicians because we all had that competitive drive. That drive was how we got there in the first place."

Back in her senior class at South High the Rambeau family had 3 kids go to college. "College was not the norm in our neighborhood. The majority of the kids I graduated with did not go to college. But it made the pressure of success high on those of us who did, along with my parents having that education and their high expectations.

"I was probably not thinking clearly at the time, but decided after three years at Eastman to marry instead of continuing my education. It was a disappointment to my dad who wanted me to earn a Ph.D. But looking back I did not have a PhD role model to look up to. Would I have continued my education if I had . . . I don’t know. At all of Eastman, there was only one female Asian, a PhD candidate."

Raising a Family

Julianne gave birth to her daughter, Marguerite in 1959. Finding herself a single young mother from 1962 until 1966, she worked at anything musical she could find. Mrs. Rambeau was still teaching private lessons in Grand Rapids so Julianne didn’t want to get in her way. She played with the Grand Rapids symphony as an orchestra pianist for five years under Robert Seller, Carl Karapetian, and Gregory Millar. She had appeared with them many times as a soloist as well as with the West Shore and Plymouth Symphony orchestras.

Julianne found full time employment at the Meijer corporate office on Walker Avenue heading the payroll department, where she met her future husband, Joe Vanden Wyngaard. They married in 1967 and their blended family consisted of Arthur (Joe’s son) and Marguerite. Arthur followed his dad’s footsteps and chose a career in computer science and Marguerite followed mom into the music field, eventually earning her M.S. and Ph.D. Marguerite currently is superintendent in Albany, NY where she resides with her daughter, Grace Madison.

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