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Let’s do ‘Sound of Music’ – Part I

Forest Hills High School in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan was my first high school teaching job. The year was 1963. 

I had completed my bachelor’s degree in public school music with majors in organ and theory, and minors in voice and music education. 

I was well on my way towards my master’s degree in counseling. Unfortunately, my expanding family required that I put a temporary halt to my educational pursuits and seek employment to keep up with my mounting financial needs. Miraculously, a call from Forest Hills High School saved the day.

The school’s superintendent called and told me they had an immediate opening for a senior high school choir director and a 9-11th grade student counselor. He told me that it was a very unusual hiring situation, but that he, after checking with all the area’s colleges, had stumbled upon my name and that I was the only qualified and available candidate.

He asked if I would I be interested and, if so, would I come in for an interview, “as soon as possible.”

I almost yelled, “You bet,” but I remained somewhat calm and professional and asked, “Would tomorrow morning work for you?”

It was a prayer answered, before it was even uttered. The next day I drove to the school and I was ushered into the Superintendent’s Office. I had a hard time remaining calm.

I was ready to say “yes” to almost anything. I needed a job. I had bills to pay and a wife and kids to feed.

After listening to the job proposal, I was more than ready to “sign on the dotted line,” but first there was a “tour of the school.” I was shown the choir room and the multi-purpose room that had a performance stage. 

I was also shown what would be my counseling office. The whole thing was a dream -come true.

The paperwork was ready for me to sign, and I remembered that my hand shook a little as I added my signature to my first teaching contract. It was the beginning of a journey that, for me, became the “trip of a lifetime.”

1963, November 22: It was a day, and a year, that would be remembered as “the day President Kennedy was assassinated.” I vividly remember that day.

I had attended my weekly Tuesday noon, North Grand Rapids Rotary Club luncheon meeting. I had been asked to become a Rotary member simply because the club, a part of the world-wide Rotary Organization, had lost its piano player member. (Each club traditionally had a short song session at the beginning of their weekly meeting.)

The song session always ended with “America, the Beautiful.” After the luncheon, I drove back to Forest Hills High School, parked the school car, and walked into the school’s office.

A highly unusual sight greeted me; teachers, students and office personnel were crying and hugging each other. I, of course, could see that some great tragedy had occurred, but I had no idea what it was. On the drive back from my Rotary meeting, I had not listened to the car radio.

When I asked, “What’s going on?” I learned about the Kennedy assassination. Needless to say, the remainder of the school day was spent in calming the kids and dealing with our own grief.

Our nation’s dream of “Camelot ” had come to a violent end. The staff and students did their best to return to some degree of normalcy, but it was difficult. A presidential assassination has a way of turning the hopes and dreams of a nation upside down.

A couple of weeks after the assassination, one of my counseling students brought me a poem that he had read in an area newspaper.

He said, “I thought that you maybe could do something with it.” It was entitled “Six White Horses.

The poem, composed by a high school student in the Detroit area, told the story of little Johnny Kennedy, as he watched the funeral procession of his daddy pass by on its way to Arlington Cemetery.

The poem so moved me that I felt the need to turn it into a song. I walked over to the choir room, sat down at the piano and within fifteen minutes I had composed the music for the poem, “Six White Horses.”

A few weeks after the event, the song was sung during my first Forest Hills High School Choir Concert. The song’s performance received a prolonged standing ovation, and I received numerous requests for copies, but I refused.

There was no question in my mind that the song, given the mood of the country at that time, could have been an “international hit,” but there was no way that I could justify profiting from someone’s grief. The song has only been performed once since that time.

Time moved on, and other events helped to move us forward and to look towards the future, again. There was a lot of enthusiasm by the kids for the high school choir program and for its potential.

I had been hired by the Lowell Showboat in Lowell, Michigan, as the new music director and I wasted no time in starting to build a Showboat Chorus; and, of course, my first pool of recruits were members of the Forest Hills High School Choir.

They, as well as in many cases their parents, were more than anxious to join. They would provide a solid musical foundation.

“Dinah Shore,” the internationally known singing star, was to be the featured singer/entertainer, and everybody wanted to be a part of the act. 

It was all very exciting, and frankly, a little frightening for me. (I had never been a music director of a popular venue, but as I had learned from reading and adopting Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled by”; and “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He has published a book, “Gerrit’s Notes: A compilation of essays,” which can be found on Amazon. His email address is gerrit.lamain@gmail.com.

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