The remarkable story of how Williston came to own the copyright to a classic song
Are you a musician, filmmaker, or media executive looking for a classic melody to bring charm to your next work? May we suggest “Dream a Little Dream,” a standard of the American songbook first published in 1931 and recorded by dozens of artists, from Kate Smith to Ella Fitzgerald to Cass Elliot, whose 1968 version with the Mamas and the Papas became an international hit? The tune is a delightful earworm, to be sure, but there’s another reason we can’t hear it too often: Any time the song is used commercially, the Williston Northampton School makes a little money.
That’s because for more than two decades, Williston has owned the musical copyright to “Dream a Little Dream”—or, more precisely, it is the sole shareholder of Words and Music, Inc., the music publishing company that owns the song. Every year, the school receives income earned by licensing the song in movies, television, recordings, sheet music, and other uses, after paying royalties to the three songwriters, Fabian Andre, Wilbur Schwandt, and Gus Kahn. The arrangement—which will continue until 2026 when the copyright expires and the song enters the public domain—has provided Williston with between $2,963 and $77,800 a year, totaling some $470,283 to date.
Just how an independent school got to be a music mogul is a story worthy of its own ballad, one that would begin with the deep friendship between two legends of the entertainment business, Howard “Howie” Richmond, founder of what is now the TRO Essex Music Group, and Francis “Cork” O’Keefe, Williston Academy class of 1919 and a former school trustee, who founded Words and Music as well as Plymouth Music and the Rockwell-O’Keefe Theatrical Agency (later General Artists Corporation). As agents, managers, and music publishers in New York City, the two men worked with a who’s who of 20th-century artists—Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Woody Herman, among many others—as well as athletes, politicians, and celebrities, and their companies partnered to license, publish, and promote the musical hits of the day.
O’Keefe, who had no heirs, died in 1990 at age 90. In his will, he left ownership of Words and Music to Richmond, who continued managing the business, collecting licensing fees and distributing royalties to songwriters. All the while, Richmond was thinking of O’Keefe, and wondering if there was something more that O’Keefe might have wanted done with the business, recalls Richmond’s son, Larry, now president of TRO. “Howie said to me, ‘Cork knew we would figure out the right thing to do.’” After a few years of donating the profits from Words and Music to Williston, Howie in 1998 gave the company itself to the school, with TRO Essex continuing to handle the day-to-day business administration.
Larry Richmond acknowledges that his father’s gift of a music company to a secondary school was highly unusual, but it also seems particularly fitting, given O’Keefe’s life work and relationship to Williston. As it happens, Howie Richmond, who died in 2012, also had ties to Williston, having attended Loomis Chaffee School when Francis Grubbs was Dean of Students there. Howie became close friends with Grubbs, and with his son, Denny, who later served as Williston’s headmaster from 1984 to 1999. “My dad knew Cork would be thrilled that Words and Music became the property of Williston,” says Larry. “He knew how important Williston was to both Cork and Denny.”
Indeed, O’Keefe, who got his nickname as a young child when he was light as a cork, spoke often of his time at Williston. He came to the school as a 17-year-old post-graduate, looking to play baseball. The World War I draft had cut short his brief stint at Lehigh University, where he had been recruited to play, and his Connecticut hometown friend Edwin Backofen ’21 steered him to Williston (a few months later, Backofen would succumb to the Spanish flu at Cooley Dickenson Hospital, a tragedy witnessed by O’Keefe in the next bed.) O’Keefe’s experience at Williston would prove to be “a big happening in my life, although I was only there a few short months,” he told Theatre Director Ellis Baker ’51 for a 1988 Bulletin article.
After Williston, O’Keefe returned to Lehigh, where he played baseball and drummed for a local band. He then began producing dances around the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, area, hiring musicians at various venues, and eventually grew his business as the manager of the popular Casa Loma Orchestra. One notable Casa Loma gig he booked was the Taft School senior prom, an event arranged by prom committee chairman and future Williston Headmaster Phil Stevens. Stevens would later ask O’Keefe to serve as a Williston Trustee, which he did from 1970 until 1975.
O’Keefe continued to win trust and affection as he built his business, acquiring Words and Music, Inc., in 1946 and launching Plymouth Music Company, a publishing, management, and promotion firm. Indeed, what impresses so many of those who knew him was his integrity. As Howie Richmond told Ellis Baker, O’Keefe was “an honest truthful, straightforward man in an industry of exaggeration. He never lost a friend.”
Larry Richmond, who worked briefly with O’Keefe, echoes that praise. “Cork had so much integrity. Songwriters trusted him; music publishers trusted him. He was a very upright guy, good in all senses. He had so much character as a man without even saying a word. His character just was there.” And, no doubt, Larry adds, that character and generosity of spirit resulted from his time at Williston.
So today, Words and Music, a business that once opened doors of opportunity for musicians and songwriters, now helps open doors for students. Larry Richmond compares the gift to an annuity, one whose yearly payouts allow Williston to have a positive impact on future students. “The beauty of Williston is that it’s a place that’s transformative for young people,” he explains. “Some teacher might take a struggling student under their wing, and then that kid goes on to become a doctor or a professional or maybe a teacher himself or herself. And I think that’s what Cork loved, giving back.”
Just one more reason we can’t forget “Dream a Little Dream.”