Oklahoma City University | In Memory—Florence Birdwell - Spring 2021 Skip to content

In Memory—Florence Birdwell - Spring 2021

Sept. 3, 1924–Feb. 15, 2021

Woman on busy street in NYC
Florence Birdwell on Broadway in 2015, when her former students Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara were both nominated for Tony Awards. Photos by Josh Robinson

Florence Gillam Hobin Birdwell was born in Douglas, Arizona, to Grace (Gillam) and Warner Hobin. She died peacefully in Yukon, Oklahoma.

Birdwell was an iconic figure at Oklahoma City University as one of the longest-serving faculty members, at 67 years as voice professor. She earned a reputation first as a gifted performer, and then as a trainer and mentor to hundreds of other performers on Broadway and opera stages around the world, including stars such as Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara.

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Birdwell with Kristin Chenoweth, at left, and Kelli O'Hara, at right, in New York City. Photos by Josh Robinson
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Broadway stars Kelli O'Hara and Kristin Chenoweth with their teacher. Photos courtesy of Birdwell

She and her younger brother, Bill, were raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Lawton, Oklahoma. Florence graduated from Lawton High School in 1941.

A promising vocal artist, she received a scholarship to OCU. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1945 and a Master of Arts in Teaching in 1969, both from OCU. Birdwell became an assistant professor in 1976 and full professor in 1988.

At OCU, she met the love of her life, Robert Lee Birdwell, and after his return from submarine duty in World War II, they married in 1945.

Black and white photo of woman sitting on car and man next to her and a man and woman holding hands with middle woman
At right, Birdwell with her children, Brian and Robyn, in 2015. Photo by Josh Robinson

Birdwell’s life at OCU never really ended. Her dream of performing on Broadway was waylaid by a throat condition that permanently altered her approach to singing. She credited her teaching success to techniques learned while overcoming the injury at the age of 21, the same year she had been invited to join the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and to audition for the role of Laurey in the movie “Oklahoma!” She told The Daily Oklahoman: “When I called in tears to my teacher (voice professor Inez Silberg), she said, ‘No, no, you must not cry. You cannot sing now, maybe, but you can certainly talk.’ Well, I did. And I’m still doing that. I am talking. Can you hear me? Oh, yes. Yay!”

Thus began an OCU teaching career that spanned nearly seven decades. Her impact cannot be overstated.

Three images of a woman smiling, singing and performing
A 1989 performance at OCU. Photos courtesy of Birdwell

“Florence Birdwell’s impact is felt far beyond the studios and classrooms,” said OCU President Martha Burger. “It extends to stages and theaters around the country and world, and to the hundreds of musical careers she has helped shape.”

Other notable students include Tony nominee Lara Teeter, Miss America 1981 Susan Powell, and Barbara Fox DeMaio, associate professor of voice at the University of Central Oklahoma. Each of her students recalled her passion, her dedication, and the way her teaching influenced every facet of their lives. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame in 2012 and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Musical Arts by OCU in 2016.

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Florence Birdwell in her OCU teaching studio and at a gathering with Stacey Logan and Kelli O'Hara. Photos courtesy of Birdwell

Soon after retiring from OCU, Birdwell traveled to New York in 2015, when perhaps her greatest professional achievement materialized. She became one of the world’s only professors to have two alumni nominated for a Tony Award in the same category in the same year.

Chenoweth (BM ’91, MM ’93, and HDHL ’13) and O’Hara (BM ’98, HDHL ’15) earned Tony nominations that year for best leading actress in a musical. O’Hara won the award for her role in “The King and I.”

During her acceptance speech, O’Hara announced to the world her appreciation for Birdwell’s training.

“I come from a place far away and there’s a little teacher there, and two of us tonight, Kristin and I, share her,” O’Hara said in her speech. “Florence Birdwell, thank you.”

In the words of Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.”

In the words of Florence Birdwell: “‘To do is to be.’ That’s Socrates. ‘To be is to do.’ That’s Plato. ‘Doo-bee-doo-bee-doooo.’ That’s Sinatra!”

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Robert & Florence Birdwell Endowed Vocal Scholarship by visiting okcu.edu/birdwell or by calling 405-208-7000 so her voice may echo through those walls for years to come.


Your voice rings in my ear forever, Florence. I will miss you as long as I live. —Kristin Chenoweth

As she often said, she taught voice and she taught life. A rarity in the profession of voice teaching, she was equally passionate about opera and musical theater. —Mark Parker, dean of OCU’s Wanda L. Bass School of Music

Black and white images of two men and woman singing and woman seated, singing
Photos courtesy of Birdwell
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