Patsy Gilliland is a familiar name in Rocky Mount. She has called the area home for more than 34 years. Most know her as singer, private voice teacher, Tar River Children’s Chorus conductor, worship leader and friend.
In 1984, Gilliland helped establish the Tar River Orchestra and Chorus as a founding board member, and for almost 23 years she has led the Children’s Chorus, one of the TROC’s six musical groups. “It is a calling for me. God has given me training in singing, a real love for young people, and a desire to see our children flourish,” she said when asked why she chooses to invest in area youth and music education.
“I have sung since I could talk,” Patsy said. “My dad was a singer and encouraged me always to sing in church. That was a nurturing, blessed place to start. I took piano lessons for about four years in my youth and then throughout my music education. Scripture says, ‘A man’s gift makes a way for him’, and it has certainly been that way for me.”
Originally from Winston-Salem, Patsy attended R.J. Reynolds High School, where she became known for singing. Finding her passion in music, she began performing in pageants during high school. Gilliland, formerly Patsy Johnson, attended North Carolina Governor’s School for choral music and later, Meredith College, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in voice performance. While at Meredith, she was asked to compete in the Miss Raleigh pageant. In 1969, that decision along with much dedication, earned her the crown of Miss Raleigh. Later that year, her success continued as Patsy was named Miss North Carolina. She describes 1969-70 as a whirlwind of appearances, entertaining, parades, speaking engagements and meeting the wonderful people of North Carolina. However, her talent, beauty and success are not what she valued as her highest achievement. “My most fulfilling engagements were speaking to young people in churches about their relationship with God,” she said.
She competed in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey in September 1969 and was named a non-finalist talent winner. Patsy Johnson was among the state winners selected to go on the Miss America USO Show to South Vietnam. “I was honored to be able to encourage our soldiers. In fact, one told me afterward that I had saved his life. He had seen so much carnage; he said it was almost more than he could bear.” Just by being at the right place at the right time and sharing her gifts on stage, Patsy had reminded the young soldier of home, and the life he had there. “I love the way God works through us, when we have no idea of what He is doing. That whole year gave me invaluable experiences with people and onstage, that I could not otherwise have had.”
During graduate school at Indiana University, Patsy met Peter Gilliland, another graduate student, who became her husband. She was a graduate assistant and performed in many operas, musicals and recitals. Peter’s studies took the two to England, where Patsy was involved in church youth leadership while establishing her own career in voice, appearing on BBC Radio and TV. After the couple returned to the United States, Patsy journeyed abroad to perform in places like Holland, Nigeria, and South Korea. Even having traveled and performed for audiences around the globe, Patsy would not trade her experiences in Rocky Mount for anything. “Teaching voice and conducting the Tar River Children’s Chorus have been joys that I never expected, but I see that God has truly given me the desire of my heart! Conducting and teaching allow a multiplication of the gifts I have been given and will go on for generations to come.”
Patsy is right where she wants to be in Rocky Mount, and she encourages others to experience for themselves what the Tar River Orchestra and Chorus have to offer. “We are so blessed to have this national caliber of music in our small city. I want everyone to come and enjoy the wide variety of music we offer.”