My College Years with an Old Opera Singer

By John Gardner

Note: This is a personal experience story involving three years of my college life living in a home owned by a 1920’s New York opera singer. No points, no outline, nothing to teach….just a story I hope you will enjoy.

Dagley House

Not quite haunted, my college apartment was a hospital room during the Civil War. This was my college home for three years while attending the University of Kentucky. Only a two-minute walk from the music building made it convenient and the rent was cheap, but came with a price. Miss Iva Dagley, a 70-yr old former opera singer, rented five third floor rooms to college guys. Both the house and the homeowner were historic and unique. The straight parallel rows of huge trees that go out for several blocks from the house likely outlined the original entrance to the 1800’s estate. Miss Dagley (no one called her Iva) was a rising opera singer when the 1930’s Great Depression sent her home from the New York’s Metropolitan Opera.  She never talked about her life overseas or in New York, or how she acquired her wealth, but aside from the value (historic and monetary) of the house itself, the contents were priceless. I’m not surprised that she never married.

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Life at the Dagley house included an education UK could not match. She adjusted forever my dialect, diction, grammar and vocabulary.  I uncomfortably experienced how the élite deal with the ordinary, picked up breadcrumbs of how the rich keep, manage and spend money and cringed at her political prejudice and unapologetic racism.

Miss Dagley was legally blind and her cat was deaf…. which made for a hilarious combination. She couldn’t see the cat and it couldn’t hear her coming. From the 3rd floor, we would periodically hear the cat scream, often followed by a crashing pot or pan. When I ran down to check on her after one especially noisy event, she scolded me to never do that again.

Rent was cheap, but included one “errand” per month. Since there were five of us, that meant she could get out at least that often, or to get things done in or around the house. Sometimes our errand was to give a tour of the house to her guests. In my three years there I did a lot with and for Miss Dagley. I’ve highlighted a few of the more memorable.

“1791” Tapestry in stairwell. When showing some guests a thick tapestry…and noticing “1791” stitched into the lower right corner, I later asked her if it was a copy. Her blunt response, “Young man, please don’t ever again suggest that I have a ‘copy’ of anything in this house.”

Traveling with Miss Dagley was a trip. We drove her in a 20-year-old Cadillac. Faded pink, it must have been especially rare and attention grabbing in the 50’s. It was in mint condition as it was only outside the garage a few miles per month. Picture, as you read the following ordeals, how the other person involved would give her assistant a “is she for real?” look that they knew she could not see.

The bank. “She wanted to “cash” a check. She didn’t specify why….just handed me a money bag and an envelope for the teller. Imagine…. a college student approaching a bank teller with a nearly blind senior citizen woman, and handing the teller an envelope containing a check, a note to “cash it” with specific instructions of how many of each denomination – and a money bag. I was unaware of the amount of the check until the teller summoned security, which quickly, but politely, positioned around us. Can you say awkward moment? The exchange with the teller went something like this:

Teller: “Ma’am, are you sure you want to cash this….all of this?”

Dagley: “What does the note say?”

Teller: “Yes ma’am, but are you aware of the amount you are asking for?”

Dagley: “You mean the amount for which I am asking? (She was always correcting grammar and pronunciation). Is there confusion about the amount?”

I was not surprised that they were questioning her writing, especially if she wrote it out herself. More probable is that her attorney, a frequent visitor, wrote the check, and that her signature was all over it. When signing things, she would ask us to place the pen in the general area. Her signature was huge and never went in the intended direction.

Teller: Are you sure you have the right number of zeros?

Dagley: How many zeros do you see?

Teller: Ma’am that is ten thousand dollars.

Dagley: “Yes, it is. It is in my account and I want you to put it in this bag.”

Bank officer w/Security: “Miss Dagley, may we have a word with you?”

Dagley: “No. You may not. This is a simple transaction and I want you to complete it NOW.”

I never knew what she did with that $10,000 in cash.

The fireplace store.“She wanted an insert for one of her massive fire places (note the chimneys on the house). She was using her long-sleeved white gloves to feel shapes and textures. The biggest difference between her white glove inspection and that of a Marine sergeant was she was unarmed.

Me: “Miss Dagley, those stoves are dirty.” (Ignores me.)

Salesman: “Ma’am, you are getting your white gloves dirty.”

Dagley: “Why am I getting my white gloves dirty?”

Salesman: “These are sample stoves in active fireplaces and they have soot on them.”

Dagley: “Why are you displaying dirty stoves? Show me a clean one, please.”

At the gas station. (full service, of course.)

Dagley: “What are you putting on my windshield?”

Attendant: “Window cleaner, ma’am.”

Dagley: “Soap and water. That is all I want you putting on my car.”

Sending Christmas Cards. She kept a book and tracked incoming and outgoing cards.

Me: “Here’s a card from [whoever]. Shall I address one to them?”

Dagley: “Did they send me a card last year?”

Me: “Yes ma’am.”

Dagley: “What about two years ago?”

Me: “Doesn’t look like it.”

Dagley: “Then we shall wait until next year. Next?”

Some of the rooms in her house.

Hopefully someday I will find the pictures I took.

The SILVER Room.“Probably originally a dining room, this room had a remarkable collection of only silver artifacts. It was a large room with layers of added shelves. Badly tarnished silver (I’m confident it wouldn’t have been if she could have seen it, but it was not wise to criticize anything in the house. My mother commented,

It would take a full-time person just to keep this room shiny.

The TEAKWOOD Room. Every piece of furniture was hand-carved under water. The room had a very oriental look to it, with marble serpent eyes in the arms of some of the chairs.

The centerpiece of the SUN room was a massive marble table. The tabletop was no fewer than three inches thick and, according to Miss Dagley, took seven men to carry in. Nothing sat on it. No one ever used it. It was just…..there.

The Living Room, and all the rooms on the first floor, had approximately 20 ft ceilings and hardwood floors covered with ornamental not quite wall to wall rugs. The rug in the living room had to be 60-80 ft long and over 20 ft wide. I would never be able to afford even the frames that surrounded the massive paintings and portraits. She was stunning in her twenties during the twenties. The 4 foot urns looked like she picked them up in India. At the back of the room (went from front to back of the house) was a full-size grand piano (not a baby grand). On very rare occasions, when she thought we were all out of the house, she would vocalize. Given her age, I can only imagine the power and beauty of such a voice 50 years earlier. She gave a very small number of private voice lessons. I wish I could have sat in on some of those.

The Second Floor had four large, ornate bedrooms, each opening to a common foyer that provided several chairs and couches that I never saw used. Sometimes she would have an extended-staying guest in one of the other 2nd floor rooms.

The Third Floor had five rooms. Four rooms had windows that faced the side or the back, and those had normal, although old widows in them. The room that faced the front had only one small ornamental original window that couldn’t be changed because of the historical registry. There was an electric bell installed that Miss Dagley would use if she needed to “call” one of us, or if she needed to give us notice that she was “coming up”.

Diction and Dialect

Singers must carefully and correctly pronounce their words. So did people in Miss Dagley’s presence. I once asked if she wanted me to wash (pronounced worsch) the car. She kept asking me what I wanted to do to her car until I figured out her point. Another time, I mentioned something on the “nooze“. She asked me how to spell that and when I responded n-e-w-s, she encouraged me to pronounce what I spelled. During my three years in her house, she thoroughly negated my northern Kentucky accent.

Racism and Communism

There was an African-American man who took care of her yard. His transactions with her were always from the back door (which I saw only one time when I walked around the outside of the house), never the front. One time I called her on a reference to him and she silenced me with,

I have nothing against colored people…..they’re just not as smart as normal people.

Another shocker was when I had said something about how I liked the way John Kennedy spoke:

Democrats are communists and he was one of the worst.

Curfew, Girls and the Girl Apartment

We all had a key to her massive front door. But each night, once she believed we were all inside, she would apply the additional locks. I don’t recall a time-specific curfew, but we all knew she waited for us to get in before she would go to bed, which made midnight practicing at the music building problematic. She told us that we were to call her if we ever got to the house and found the door locked. No one wanted to make that call.

One night I missed the locking, which meant having to walk to campus to find a pre-cellular-phone. Instead, I elected to use the fire escape, which required the first ladder to get to the metal roof right outside her bedroom window and then climbing the second ladder to the window of my room. Unfortunately, I mistakenly thought I had the storm window locked open and when it slammed shut, the shattered glass made a terrible noise outside her window. I looked over the fire escape and saw her bedroom light come on. I climbed inside just in time to hear the bell ring and her call, “I’m coming up”. She never raised her voice, simply asking….

Why did you break my window?

Joan and I were dating by the time I moved into the house sophomore year. Miss Dagley liked Joan, especially since she was a vocal music major. Two of the five third floor guys would have girl friends over. The other three didn’t want to put their friends through Miss Dagley’s unofficial approval process, which generally required only the first few conversation exchanges. Only the best for her boys, of course.

There was a studio apartment out the back of the house that was probably originally a summer kitchen or servant quarters. She would rent it to girls, but not to just one. She offered it to Joan, but when the second renter fell through, Miss Dagley helped her get a basement apartment down the street the provided extra income to a nice elderly couple. I spent more time in that basement than Joan spent in my attic.

Church and misc

Miss Dagley was Episcopalian. I never saw her church, although I would have loved to hear her sing. I learned two fun facts about this church. There were only six members (left). And because of her Packard story, I believe it was of a rural country variety. The reason she bought her Cadillac was because her previous car, a Packard, was so heavy that it once “sank” in her church parking lot.

I regret….

… that I never returned to visit. I learned of Miss Iva Dagley’s death from the lawyer’s response to my Christmas card. She had no family alive and the gossip, while we were there, was that it would all be left to her cat.


17 yrs experience as a high school band director. 14 yrs as college adjunct faculty. 30+ yrs in the fundraising industry and 24 yrs as a small business owner. (Don't add all those up.). Experience in both the fundraising sales and education worlds give me a unique combination of perspectives in both. I love working with the youthful enthusiasm of today's teenage achievers and with those who work with them. Also 4yrs as proprietor of, which offers a wide variety of virtual services including web/blog design/hosting/managing, social media management (scheduling posts/tweets for maximum impact and brand enhancement) and small business consulting - specializing in school product fundraising.

One comment on “My College Years with an Old Opera Singer
  1. Richard Stonage says:

    As a UK engineering student, I lived at Elley Villa from spring 1979 to late summer 1980 and had many of the same experiences with Miss Dagley. She was an experience. The Cadillac was “rose”, not pink, as she often corrected. Rose was her favorite color.

    She kicked me out as I was leaving with my suitcase for my only 2-week break between summer and fall sessions at UK because one of the guys complained that my TV in the center room of the “garret” was noisy and keeping him awake. I owned the TV, but never watched it. Another guy would leave it on and was too lazy to turn it off. No matter, she told I was not welcome back as I literally was walking out the front door. I had to return from Bowling Green the next week and look for a place to live as the 20000 student school was about to start fall semester. Real pain. There was a student housing shortage and I was desperate, but luckily was able to rent a decent room across the street.

    I talked to Miss Dagley a lot, but she was not very considerate in many ways, such as kicking me out. She did not like non music students. I was an engineering student and graduated in 1981. In past, she would only rent to music students with references.

    Some interesting notes: cat’s name was Chiquita. Mrs. Baker, a boarder that lived on second floor, told me the cat died while she was there. Miss Dagley had her feeding it milk and water with an eye dropper as it lay dying under the piano for several weeks. Miss Dagley bought a child’s coffin for the cat and it is buried in back yard by the large hedge with a small tombstone. I did not believe her, but found the stone under the now large hedge. Sure enough, it has “Chiquita” engraved on it.

    Mrs. Baker lived there for several years and told me a lot.

    She was a retired Lexington public school teacher. According to Mrs. Baker she was a very popular teacher, had a big Packard car for many years, and used to take groups of students for rides including to Elley Villa.

    Miss Dagley’s spinster sister died from burns when her bedclothes caught fire from the open-face gas heater in her 2nd floor bedroom. How tragic, but while I was there she had an open-face gas heater installed in the front room of 3rd floor garret. Those things are obviously dangerous.

    Miss Dagley used to give voice lessons in large center hall. One quiet Saturday morning I heard this awful noise that sounded like a bellowing cow. I didn’t know what was happening, but it sounded bad. I ran down all the stairs from the 3rd floor to find a middle-aged man warming up for voice lessons, a tiny very old lady at piano as accompanist, and Miss Dagley sitting in a chair.

    I only heard Miss Dagley singing once, very softly, while she was in the kitchen and she did not realize I was coming down the stairs. She never sang in public. Her voice was very pretty. She and her sister, the one that died from burns, toured with and were understudies of Ernestine Schumann-Heink who was a famous opera singer and the “female Caruso”.. Schumann-Heinke’s photo was in the living room.

    Because Miss Dagley loved Italian marble (sun room table), was endeared with burial customs (Chicquita’s stone), loved classical beautiful things (Elley Villa, furniture, chandeliers, ………..), I deduced that she must have a mausoleum in the absolutely beautiful Lexington Cemetery. One nice sunny day I went to the cemetery and asked for location of Dagley plot. I was right, it was there, as six chamber above-ground mausoleum where several siblings and spouses are interred. Of course, there was one empty chamber for her and the mausoleum panels are some type of granite or marble.

    I enjoyed your article about our similar experiences and your friendship with Iva Dagley.

Please share your thoughts.