When it came time for the final goodbye party for the Green Bay Boys Choir on Sunday, April 14th, I and all of my siblings — Kathleen, Susan, Jim and Michael — found their way to Green Bay to take part in it. Our dad had been gone for nearly 20 years and it was hard not to feel grateful that a group of “boys” thought enough of him (and my mother) to invite us to participate. There is a power that endures when good men stand together.
While it is true that None of Us Live the Life That He Had Imagined, there are times when an actual event surpasses all of your expectations. The Compass, the official newspaper of the Green Bay Catholic Diocese, asked our family for an article about the event. Here is a summary of that article:
The Original Green Bay Boys Choir: 40 Years of Song, Friendship and Fellowship
By Anne Gallagher
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.
- A favorite song of The Original Green Bay Boys Choir
In the beginning, they came together to sing. In the end, they created a legacy of enduring friendship and fellowship.
It was 1972 and Green Bay stockbroker Bob Gallagher organized about 50 middle-aged men under the name, “The St. John’s Boys Choir” to sing at the 5:00 p.m. mass at St. John the Evangelist Church, located in downtown Green Bay and the oldest continuous parish in Wisconsin. Accompanied by organ or piano, they often punctuated songs like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,”, “Oh Lord I am not Worthy,” and “God Bless America,” with the big sounds of cymbals and drums, which added both interest and drama to their singing.
“We’re a group of good guys who came together to sing, but mostly it was about the fellowship. The choir became the way to cement our friendships,” said Ron DeLain, for 19 years the Choir’s final director with and formerly Green Bay City Clerk. “We were really something special for our generation.”
After 40 years of singing together, the “boys” – now mostly in their 70s and 80s – formally retired in 2012. Originally singing only at St. John’s, the Choir’s popularity grew and took the group to no less than 10 surrounding counties for performances at masses, weddings, funerals, anniversaries and Christmas programs. To reflect their new-found growth, they changed their name to “The Original Green Bay Boys Choir.” They sang at veteran’s homes, nursing homes and Our Lady of Good Help Chapel. As they tell the story, in the early days Bob Gallagher would rent a school bus for their out-of-town transportation and contract with the prisoners at the Green Bay Correctional Institute to create bus signage and banners. With the blessing of the warden, Bob paid them in cigarettes, as was the custom in those days.
By the time they retired, 112 “boys” had filled the various choir lofts, garnering the attention of Green Bay’s Bishop, David L. Ricken. “I am deeply humbled that so many of you participated in this choir over the forty-year period. How wonderful that so many senior members of the Catholic Church continued to sing at the Masses throughout the years. The sounds of hymns coming from the choir certainly brought much joy to each Mass,” wrote Bishop Ricken in a tribute letter to the Choir, as they prepared to celebrate one last Mass together on April 14th, 2012 at St. John’s.
“We offer our music to our God, our family and all who hear us.”
From the invitation to the Boys Choir Celebration Mass on April 14, 2013
Forty or so men arrived that day at St. John’s, each dressed in a blue blazer with a red rose in his lapel. They sat together at the front rows of church, sang the last hymn “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and presided over the dedication of a framed commemorative plaque telling their story of service. The plaque will hang in the parish hall. With friends and family, they gathered after mass at the Rite Place at Bellevue Street and Allouez Avenue for lunch and friendship.
“You know, I had an affinity for choirs when I joined the group in 1993 or 1994. I met my wife one day when I was singing in the Cathedral choir so I thought it might be fun to join this group,” said Norb Kalinoski, who served as Choir Director for about a year and was a high school principal during much of his working career. He heard of the choir when it formed in 1972 but had just accepted a job in Shiocton. When he returned to Green Bay years later, one of his first orders of business was joining up with the Choir. “The driving force of the group was social. We were not the world’s greatest singers by the way, but we got by. When you sing, you are happy.”
Liturgical and classical musician Lester Bleser Jr. joined the Choir as its accompanist (organ and piano) about 20 years ago. “The choir did the music I enjoyed and at the time there was an opening for an accompanist,” he recalls. The group’s only female member – an organist – was moving to another parish. Les joined in a heartbeat. “I enjoyed the camaraderie. We got together once or twice a month to socialize and I liked the all-male environment. Plus we were a unique group – there are very few all-male choirs. We were really one of a kind for our time.”
Choir members came from all walks of life. There were educators and social workers, doctors and lawyers and judges, public officials and business owners. At one time, the local sheriff – Norb Froelich – served as the Choir organist. “It didn’t matter what you did. We came together for a common purpose and shared a love of God, Church and family,” said Dr. Jim Falk, the Choir’s final president and a member for 40 years.
“Oh, they came together to give praise and glory to God with their voices and wasn’t that a good enough reason to be together!” added Gwen Falk, Jim’s wife of many years and the mother of their 15 children. “Plus, the truth is that Bob Gallagher made it fun to be a Catholic.”
If there was one story about Bob Gallagher at the Choir’s luncheon, there were 100. Bob, the original Choir director, died after a lengthy illness in 1993. “If you ask me my favorite memory of the Choir, it is Bob Gallagher. My life changed dramatically because of that man. He had the ability to join us together and make us do things we never would have done otherwise,” said Jack Smith, now retired but for many years a parole and probation officer at the local Green Bay prison. “You know, I’m not even a Catholic and when I joined this Choir I wasn’t the only non-Catholic. Bob brought us all together as friends.”
He told the story of Bob Gallagher’s run for an officer position at Green Bay’s Junior Chamber of Commerce, or JC’s. With a hand-lettered sign, “Vote Gallagher – Don’t be a Chicken,” Bob gave an election speech, and then released about a dozen live chickens into the crowd. “Well, people were howling with laughter. Bob just had a way with people and a way of creating fun. I owe that man so much,” Jack Smith said, explaining that he wasn’t really a singer but with Bob’s urging, regularly sang before as many as 400 people.
As Bob’s illness progressed in the late 1980s, Jack said Bob developed a great difficulty with speech. “It was hard to understand him at times, you really had to work at it,” he said. “But you know, we would take Bob up to the choir loft in his wheelchair and when he sang, every word came out clear as a bell.”
As Choir members and their families finished their meals, Ron DeLain rose to say a formal goodbye. “It was so great to be part of this group because of what we represented and who we are. I hate to say goodbye. I don’t want to say that we are finished. So until we meet again, we’ll see you all again soon,” he said.
Jim Falk stood beside him and said, “God always loves a singer. If we have an encore, that’s going to be up to the Holy Spirit.”
ORIGINAL GREEN BAY BOYS CHOIR MEMBERSHIP 1972-2012
Lester Blaser, Jr.
Ms. Val Niraz
Larry De Groot
Jim De France
Gary Des Jardins
Bernie Van Camp
John Van Rens
Jim Vande Walle
Don Van Straten