The summer is winding down…officially I have about 48 hours left of summer. I get on the plane on Monday late afternoon bound for Paris and Amman, and when I make that step onto the Delta jet, summer comes to an end.
But as summer comes to its wistful conclusion, and "Year #26 of Teaching" for me gears up, I will look back on last Saturday, August 3, 2013. A week ago right now I attended an anniversary of a group that once meant a great deal to me. Over a year ago a group of intrepid alumni of the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir decided to work and create a reunion for those in this choir under the direction of Glenville Thomas. Thomas, an educator born in Wales and from Zanesville, Ohio, convinced then-Governor James Rhodes in 1963 that the mighty Ohio State Fair needed a choir based on the fairgrounds who would perform daily around the goings-on of the Fair. By the time I joined this choir in 1980, so many traditions had been put in place. The choir, back in those days, was 300 high school choristers strong, at least two from every one of Ohio’s 88 counties. You wore red-white-and blue, suffered in the hot dorms on the fairgrounds, and sang at least 5 concerts a day. After the State Fair ended each year, there were chances to sing at festivals around the state, perform the Messiah in December in Zanesville, and then work toward a European tour (benefitting cancer research) the summer after one sang at the Fair. From time-to-time Thomas took alumni to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Music teachers across the state submitted candidates for the Fair Choir and then Mr. Thomas and his wife, Mari, chose the members of the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. When I received acceptance in 1980, I had never even been to the Ohio State Fair. I was not really the State Fair type—these fairs cater to the rural folk, and I am decidedly urban. But being in the choir was a magical experience. We lived on the fairgrounds for 23 days—imagine at age 16 how exciting it is to be away from home for three weeks! We performed 110 concerts during the Fair, marching across the fairgrounds under the summer sun dozens and dozens of times. Thomas organized his choir not by voice section, but by SATB quartet, so that the sound was balanced (Soprano Alto Tenor Bass) no matter where one might stand. So 75 quartets strong made up this choir of teen-agers. You made friends from all over the state. I remember friends like Sally and Joan and John and Debbie among many others, and as I have driven across the state the last 30 years every time I enter a new county I can remember names from that choir in 1980.
I bought into the whole thing—I did the Europe tour, I made my father drive me to rehearsals across the state for Messiah and anytime the group got together. The following year my good friend from West High, Peggy, sang in the choir, and I drove up to hear her concerts. I came back for Alumni Days and loved every iteration of this group. In 1983 my sister made the choir and so I very excitedly accompanied the family the day we took her up to the Rhodes Center to move into the dorms. As it turned out, one male staff member had not shown up, and Peggy, who was on staff that year, told me to speak to Mr. Thomas volunteering to come join the staff.
When the errant staff member still hadn’t shown up, I got the call to come up and join the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir staff! Those three weeks were heaven! I got to meet a whole new 300-member choir group, cemented my friends with some of my 1980 choir members then on staff, and shared this experience with my sister.
Even though I was only 19, that summer had a significant impact on my thoughts about my career paths and leadership qualities. At that time I knew I wanted to teach history, and teach in a college, but I had not thought much about how one leads people. I was only a year older than some of the older members of the choir, so I had to figure out how to manage the boys in my dorm. The leadership of the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir considered fear tactics as the best to get the kids to mind you. I tried that, and while I could do it, I realized what a less-than-perfect model upon which to build the morale of an organization or to inspire trust. I came to see that if you cultivated respect, the members in the organization would really do whatever you wanted. I tried that, and found that to be an infinitely more rewarding way to work with people. I kind of liked working with high school students as well! A few years down the line, this experience helped me decide to teach in a secondary school. However, my decision to go against the protocol of the staff did not endear me to the leadership and I was not asked back to be on the staff.
In the early 1990s Glenville Thomas died unexpectedly, and thus ended 29 years of his running the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. Since his death over 20 years ago, I have returned only three times to the Ohio State Fair for Alumni Days. Besides my friendship with Tony Buscemi (a biannual visit to Indian restaurants!) those days receded more and more into the dusty annals of time.
So last summer when the announcement came heralding a major reunion to commemorate the 50 years since Glenville Thomas began the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir, I looked forward to returning to the State Fair. The organizers of the reunion hoped to have a 1000-voice choir perform in the Coliseum once again (the current choir hadn’t performed in this vast space since 2001 and the alumni had not performed there in over 20 years). Facebook pages kept up reminders and many of us signed up to attend. First of all, I was just happy the event coincided with the summer vacation in the United States!
At the beginning of the summer I targeted about a dozen people I hoped to see the most at the reunion. I wrote impassioned letters to them, reminding them of what the choir had meant to us in our youth. I didn’t hear from some of them, a couple said they would think about it, and finally, in the end only two of them decided to come to the reunion.
Reunions are tricky things—I have spoken about them before in the blog. If you were my friend John Johnson, the bass in my marching quartet, my dorm buddy, and my best friend at the 1980 Fair, he didn’t go to Europe, stopped coming to Alumni Days in the mid-80s and subsequently fell out of touch, it was just three weeks of his now half-century life. Should we even go back to those days of marching in the heat (by the way, no sunscreen protection whatsoever!) and singing??? I never heard from John. How do we look now? What did I do in life?
There is never a reunion where everyone comes back to something. Are the ones who return the wise ones? The foolish ones? If you never see 100% participation at a reunion, can one ever escape disappointment? As I drove up to the reunion last Friday I worried about the disappointment. In the end my sister decided not to go. My one constant Fair friend Tony decided not to go. It was such an interesting reflection about the glass half-empty/half-full. The half-empty part was obvious: few of the recipients of my plea wrote back; I was going alone; maybe it was a waste of two good days toward the end of summer.
But turning the glass the other way, here are some good things. I had found Sally Adams! Sally had been my best friend on our 1981 Europe tour but we had last seen each other in 1983. Not longer after that the letters and Christmas cards came to an end. Like many friendships, it kind of just vaporized. But I had found Sally on Facebook and while she didn’t want to come to the reunion, she invited me to stop by her house before the rehearsal. She lived a few miles from the fairgrounds and so after 30 years we had our own reunion. It was wonderful to catch up, hear about her life, and yes, I would have known her radiant smile anywhere. Time melted as we saw each other and talked about our 1981 adventures getting lost in Paris, buying Royal wedding loot in London, and throwing snowballs on a Swiss alp that longago July. Thirty years. A lovely moment to rekindle a once-powerful bond.
When the decades of the choir members gathered on Saturday morning to rehearse what we would sing in the Coliseum, I realized this was certainly an aging bunch! The very youngest of Thomas’ choristers were now approaching 40, so we had 40-somethings, 50-somethings, and 60-somethings gathering to remember and perform pieces they had sung 30 or 40 or 50 years ago as teens. There were about 5 pieces in common over the years that every choir had learned, so one of Glenville’s assistants, Girrard, took the helm to conduct us. He knew there was trepidation in the room. Some hadn’t sung for years. The numbers didn’t quite reach 1000. There is always a little melancholy tang in the air with a reunion. Would it be worth the effort and time to have come back???
Girrard wisely gave a pep talk about the experience of being in the choir, the legacy of patriotism, musicianship, friendship, wanderlust, enthusiasm, vigor, that Thomas had bequeathed to each of us. Girrard said, “No matter if you know 2 or 200 people here right now, you were a member of an exciting organization, you were a part of something special.” That morning, that afternoon, and that evening at the gala reception toasting 50 years since Thomas first plucked his Ohio choristers, it was a beautiful reminder of that something special.
No one from the 1983 choir, the year I was on staff, came that I knew well. So I focused on the 6 from my 1980 choir and had a grand time. We had a real quartet for the marching and the singing, and the table of us that evening laughed and smiled greatly as we looked back 33 years. Two people had come just because I asked them. I focused on the fun table there that night and what this group has meant to me over the 33 years since a 16-year old boy from Hamilton County with perfectly feathered and parted-down-the-middle hair spent 23 days in a hot dorm in Columbus.
While the concert in the Coliseum was a thrill (I think we had 800 people raising their voices in song) and the impromptu concert in front of the Butter Choir and Butter Glenville Thomas in the Dairy Barn certainly gave me chills, my two favorite moments, perhaps, came in rehearsal last Saturday morning. One song that Glenville loved was the jaunty tune, “In a Shanty in Old Shanty-Town,” a song I performed dozens of time but without too much affection. There was one moment in the song, to the lyric of “rocking chair,” when Glenville instructed the choir to lean forward in unison (like the rocking chair…). He thought it was a cool move. Anyway, last Saturday when we rehearsed for the first time “Shanty,” we came to that moment in the song. Instinctively, the hundreds of us there at the rehearsal all leaned forward and then chuckled. Would you believe this little tiny moment made me tear up???!!! I have no idea why, but it brought back all those memories of the choir and what it has meant to me. This dumb little gesture! Memories and tear ducts are funny things…
Then a little while later, when we rehearsed my favorite piece of the choir, the men sang “I Believe” and the women sang “Ave Maria” in counterpoint. We practiced in our separate vocal parts, the hundreds of us perhaps intimidated by the high notes required at the end of the piece. The familiar-in-my-memory introduction in D flat major began. The piece was, indeed, as beautiful as I remembered. When the hundreds of us finished the song, there was an eerie silence following the climactic soaring chords. No one said anything. But, I noticed something so sweet. All around me I noticed those 40-something, 50-something, and 60-something men who had journeyed back to the fairgrounds, and very innocently, and not so unashamedly, had taken off their glasses to wipe their eyes. As we did this Girrard broke the silence and said, “That’s all right. Remember we were a part of something special.”
I didn’t go back there to pretend to be 16 again. I went back to see what I remembered, what emotions might stir up, what we all looked like. And by singing those 5 ancient songs, we had a little taste of immortality last Saturday. Immortality of what? Who knows, but I felt a little sense of immortality.
So as the summer ends I look back on the bookends of the Summer of 2013 of choir reunions. The beginning and end of this summer with sweet memories and a touch of whimsy and wistfulness.