Wineka column: A cappella choir alumni right on key

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2011

HICKORY — The Rev. John Stirewalt will always remember singing with the rest of Lenoir-Rhyne University’s A Cappella Choir around the tomb of composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
After being secretly ushered in late at night, they sang some of Bach’s sacred pieces in Leipzig’s Church of St. Thomas in what was then communist East Germany. There was no audience, only the choir.
“That night,” Stirewalt says, “is the only time the choir sang illegally.”
The Lenoir-Rhyne University A Cappella Choir has been an important N.C., U.S. and world ambassador for the Lutheran-based school for 75 years.
This afternoon, about 100 alumni of those choirs, including several people with Rowan County roots, will be giving a special 75th anniversary performance at First Baptist Church in Hickory.
“It’s goose-pimply,” said Salisbury’s Emily Stirewalt, a 1955 graduate who will be among those singing.
The alumni, coming from across the country, rehearsed four different times over Friday and this morning leading up to the 3 p.m. performance.
Through the years, the A Cappella Choir has relied on the leadership of three men, all worshipped by the men and women who sang for them.
Professor K.B. Lee founded the choir in 1935, starting with 46 singers. He made way in 1970 for E. Ray McNeely Jr., who retired and turned it over to current director Dr. Paul D. Weber in the fall of 1999.
McNeely and Weber will be sharing directing duties today, part of a big reunion weekend. (Lee died in 1974.)
Over three quarters of a century, the A Cappella Choir has performed in churches across North Carolina, including the Duke University Chapel and Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University. Its spring and European (every fourth year) tours have taken choir members to New York, Washington’s National Cathedral, Chicago and states from Massachusetts to Texas.
Overseas, they have performed at Notre Dame in Paris and at Martin Luther’s grave in Wittenburg, Germany. Wherever they’ve gone, the choir members usually have stayed in homes of host church families.
As much as they speak of the places they’ve been, alumni of the A Cappella Choir speak just as often of the friendships they made and the lifelong love of music the experience gave them.
A 1952 graduate of China Grove High, Emily Stirewalt of Salisbury has been to every reunion possible. It sometimes gives alumni a chance to sing with their children, if they happened to be members of the choir years later.
Emily was able to sing at one reunion with her husband, Willie (now deceased), and their daughter, Lois. Plus, the reunion is great “just in the simple joy of singing the songs, well-known a cappella numbers enjoyed by people who, like you, enjoy singing them,” said Stirewalt, a first soprano.
“It was just a group of like-minded kids wanting to do their best — and their best for the college, too,” said Phyllis Karriker McMurphy, a 1954 graduate. “I think we were the first group to travel.”
Karriker, a graduate of Landis High School and now a member of the Mount Moriah Lutheran Church choir in China Grove, remembered Lee for his gentleness.
“We just wanted to do our best for him,” she said. “His demeanor was so kind and loving.”
Karen Blume Feezor, a 1980 graduate of South Rowan High, said McNeely, likewise, was the consummate director, bringing out the best in his singers.
“It was the best part of my college experience,” said Feezor, who is now director of admissions for Lenoir-Rhyne. “If I had to pick one thing, it was my favorite.”
She thinks the current A Cappella Choir can stack up to past editions.
“I think we were good,’ Feezor said. “But we were nothing compared to these students now.”
An East Rowan graduate, Tonya Brittain sang in the Lenoir-Rhyne choir during the late 1980s and early 1990s. She is now music director at Union Lutheran in Rowan County.
“Very few things mean as much as that choir,” Brittain said. “I can tell you, those memories are so ingrained, that I still sing those songs in my head.”
She knew how much the choir meant to Lenoir-Rhyne when she was on her honeymoon at the top of a mountain in Wyoming, and someone commented enthusiastically about her A Cappella Choir T-shirt.
Emily Stirewalt Williams (not to be confused with the other Emily Stirewalt) said her European trip with the choir in 1983 took her to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy.
Staying with host families “really took the trip and tour experience a step farther,” said Williams, a 1980 graduate of South Rowan High who lives in Greensboro today.
Williams will always remember changing into choir robes in the “inner sanctum” of Notre Dame.
“We thought that was just so neat, to be in the cathedral where tourists couldn’t go,” she said.
The choir has a tradition for seniors during their last concert. The underclassmen make a circle around them and sing the Lenoir-Rhyne alma mater. It’s a way of sending them off, while also reminding them they are always part of the family.
“It was a family,” Williams added.
The Rev. C.P. Fisher and his wife, Martha, met and started dating as A Cappella Choir members at Lenoir-Rhyne in the late 1930s and early 1940s. C.P. Fisher, 92, rehearsed Friday for today’s show, while Martha watched and listened.
“She said that sounded mighty good to her ears this morning,” said C.P., who grew up in China Grove, pastored at N.C. and S.C. churches and now lives in Rockwell.
The Rev. Mary Louise Sitton, pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran in Mount Ulla, has connections to each of the three A Cappella Choir directors.
As a 7-year-old living in Hickory, she took piano lessons from Lee, and she remembers listening to the choir in concerts as a teenager.
Her late-blooming college career — she graduated in 2001 as part of the school’s first Sacred Music Department — then spanned the retirement of McNeely and the beginning of Weber.
The Rev. Thomas Ford, a 1969 Lenoir-Rhyne graduate, grew up going to Lutheran Chapel Church in China Grove. Today he is pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Glendora, Calif.
On a 1968 Washington, D.C., trip with the choir, Ford and another choir buddy decided they would try to meet U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy at his office, where they waited for a long time without success.
Later, they were walking toward the Smithsonian, when they spied Kennedy, walking by himself on the other side of a busy street. Dodging traffic, they ran after the senator and finally caught up with him in time for him to stop, greet them and shake their hands.
A few weeks later, Ford was working a third-shift job at the Hickory post office when he heard Kennedy had been assassinated in California.
Lee directed the A Cappella Choir when Ford was a member, and it meant a lot, he recalled, when the group sang at Organ Lutheran Church in eastern Rowan County, where many of his ancestors were members.
During their Friday afternoon practice, Ford and Sitton realized they had a family connection through a long-ago Organ Lutheran member, Wendell Miller.
“You and I are related!”Ford told her.
Emily Stirewalt’s daughter, Lois O’Connor, sang for four years in the A Cappella Choir before graduating in 1988. She also is a Salisbury High graduate.
She remembers auditioning her freshman year with some of her suite mates and how difficult it was to be selected to the choir. O’Connor majored in international business and French, so the choral music and the friendships forged in practices and on the various tours proved to be a great outlet for her.
Over the telephone, she laughed, remembering how she sang every song from “The Sound of Music” while the choir was in Austria. And like others, she still marvels that she was walking the back staircases in Notre Dame.
O’Connor’s voice cracks when she recalls attending the 2009 Reformation Sunday services at the National Cathedral in Washington — and there was her choir, performing.
It quickly became emotional for O’Connor, especially as choir members clasped their hands together as they sung the first notes to their signature song, “O’ Day Full of Grace.”
“I couldn’t make it through,” O’Connor said.
She moved quietly down to the side to the front of the church, hoping she would recognize somebody with the choir, to share the moment, and there was her old director, McNeely himself.
She proudly sang the rest of the song with the choir.
In 1983, though he already had graduated, John Stirewalt went on the choir’s European tour with his sister, Emily.
John’s uncle, Ernest Stirewalt, had been killed during World War II and was buried in a military cemetery in Italy. John Stirewalt eventually left the choral group to do some backpacking on his own, and he went in search for his uncle’s grave, finding it about seven miles outside of Florence.
John took out an American flag he had bought at O.O. Rufty’s General Store in Salisbury and placed it at his uncle’s grave.
Just another story made possible by the A Cappella Choir.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka