“God Always Loves a Singer” – A Tribute to the Green Bay Boys Choir

St. John's Welcomes the Boys Choir

St. John’s Church Welcomes the Boys Choir on April 14, 2013 for a Mass of Celebration

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.”

Ron DeLain Leads the Boys Choir in their final song

Ron DeLain Leads the Boys Choir in their final song, “Let Their Be Peace on Earth” (Photo by Jim Gallagher)

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.”

Boys Choir Members Sing from the front rows under Ron DeLain's direction

Boys Choir members sing from the front rows under Ron DeLain’s direction.  Traditionally, they sang from the choir loft at the back of church. (Photo by Judy Lepak)

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.”

Some of the remaining members of the Boys Choir pose for a photo at St. John's Church

Some of the remaining members of the Boys Choir pose for a photo at St. John’s Church on April 14, 2013 (Photo by Jim Gallagher)

ORIGINAL GREEN BAY BOYS CHOIR MEMBERSHIP 1972-2012

FOUNDER

Bob Gallagher

DIRECTORS

Ron DeLain

Bob Gallagher

Norb Kalinoski

Rollie Macco

Bernie Schlafke

ORGANISTS

Lester Blaser, Jr.

Norb Froelich

Ms. Val Niraz

Mert Mueller

David Seering

MEMBERS

Jim Baenen

Don Bailey

Arnie Beimborn

Dick Bender

Ron Benzschaewl

Ray Berker

Milt Besanson

Dan Boettge

Jim Brawner

Carl Burkel

Keith Campbell

Jerry Chapman

Tom Coe

Harry Cygan

Larry De Groot

Jim De France

Bob Delacensarie

Bernie Delwiche

Steve Deneys

Gary Des Jardins

John Dolan

Dan Drossart

Steve Everson

Jim Falk

John Finco

Bob Flatley

Tony Frederichs

Bill Galvin

Ray Gantenbein

Larry Goeben

John Harrington

Dick Heardon

Leon Herlache

Cal Hirn

Gil Hoffman

Brian Holloway

Bud Huebner

Ralph Jenquin

Chuck Jones

Ray Josephs

Bob Juley

John Kafka

Dick Kalishek

Ed Kaufman

Tom Kiedinger

Peter Kiefer

Jeff Klarkowski

Rick Knaus

Larry Kust

Jerry Lemere

Carl Lewis

Chet Lewicki

Ron Liebergen

John Loritz

Tom Lukas

Joe Mader

John Mancheski

Ardo Mariucci

Ken Martin

Ken Mathys

Don Melberg

Bill Mielke

Tom Mielke

Francis Moes

Mark Monfort

Dean Mraz

Roland Murphy

Roger Navarre

Jim Neuser

Leo Nikowitz

Ivan Nowak

Ken Payette

Fred Pergande

Bill Phillips

John Prosser

Bud Pytlak

Pat Reed

Bill Ricker

Maury Robinson

Bob Rockstroh

Pat Sands

Jim Schiebel

Greg Schmitt

Ken Schuldes

Urban Schumacher

Bob Seering

Al Siudzinski

Del Skelton

Jack Smith

John Smits

Ron Spielbauer

John Thornton

Bernie Van Camp

John Van Rens

Jim Vande Walle

Don Van Straten

Earl Verheyden

Paul Wagner

Len Walczyk

Tom Washienko

Mike Wichowski

Larry Younk

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“It’ll Run on Tuesday.”

Coffee as Fortification

One of the great ideas I received after writing about my search to find Maggie— the nurse who cared for me when I was in the hospital after burning my leg — was to contact the local newspaper and have them link to the blog posts.  Honestly, I hadn’t thought of that. instead I was working on the copy for a call-out in the personal ads.  But the more I thought about it, the smarter it seemed.  Armed with a cup of coffee for both caffeine and courage, I called a long-time columnist at the Green Bay Press-Gazette and spilled out the story of my search.

“Now, that’s kind of interesting,” reporter Dian Page said.  “Tell me about your ties to Green Bay.”  My ties of course are many, including having a brother and a sister who still work and live in the area.  “Well, send me an email summarizing what we talked about and I’ll see what I can do.”  Quickly, I pounded out the story summary on my keyboard, hit the send button and that was that.

Only if you have ever pitched the press, you can never be sure what happens next other than the fact that you usually wait.  Your story, your idea, your pitch if you will is no longer so much yours as someone else’s.  The media had just become the filter between me and my target audience — anyone who might have information about Maggie-the-Nurse or my story for that matter.

Days passed and I sort of forgot I had even done this.

When the phone rang yesterday with an unknown 414 exchange, I let it go to voice mail.  Probably another one of those “you’ve won a vacation!” scams or something.  But when I listened to the voice mail, it was Dian from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, calling to fact-check a few things about the story.  “It’ll run on Tuesday,” she said.  “Good luck.  I hope it helps and you find some information.”

It’ll run on Tuesday, January 31st.  I don’t know what exactly is going to ‘run’ — what piece or part of the story — but I do know there’s power in the press and that everyone and their brother reads the local paper.  Now this, is going to get interesting.

Returning to Green Bay

Rainbow on I-43 North September 30, 2011

Since my parents passed away in the mid-1990s, my return visits to my hometown of Green Bay, WI are tied to special events rather than happenstance occurrences.  With a class reunion looming, I made plans with two St. Joseph Academy high school friends to attend the event together and didn’t initially give much thought to maximizing my time there.  But as the weekend approached, it seemed right to think about, and perhaps visit, some of the landmarks from childhood.

After all the research and thinking I’d already done for Anne on Fire, I decided to let the weekend unfold on its own rather than attempt to orchestrate anything.

As Barbie, Teresa and I hit Highway I-43 for the drive north, the largest and most beautiful rainbow appeared ahead of us (see photo above), symbolically beckoning us forth, or at the very least giving us a very good feeling about the weekend.  (For meaning on rainbows, see:   http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2008/08/what-do-rainbows-mean.html and http://www.buzzle.com/articles/colors-of-the-rainbow-and-their-meaning.html) .  Our feeling was right on the money:  Green Bay had changed and expanded since our high school days but our connections to each other felt as if no time had passed. 

519 Spring Street, Green Bay, WI

On Saturday, we did some errands and then drove by the old neighborhood.  I hopped out of the car and took a picture of my old house at 519 Spring Street (above) and then we headed out of the city to visit Teresa’s parents for lunch.  For our entire childhood, Teresa and I lived across the street from one another, frequent refugees in each other’s houses and intertwined in the storylines of growing up.  Her parents had long since moved from the St. James neighborhood we shared and we pulled up to a cozy brown ranch with an enormous garden next to it.  The table was set for lunch and after a tour of the garden (and some choice pickings from the remaining harvest) we settled in to catch up and break bread. 

As lunch neared its close, Teresa’s dad turned and sincerely asked, “Now Annie, tell us what you are doing with yourself.”   After telling of husband and kids, I mentioned my Anne on Fire pursuits hoping they might have a remembrance or two to share.  I watched Teresa’s mom nodding and then she said, “I do remember how hard it was on your mother.  There was one day when I went across the street to visit and she told me she had just received a call from the Service League.  Just the day before I had received one as well and of course with all the kids I had, there was no time for me to be volunteering for other things but they must have been calling some of the neighborhood women.  After what had happened with you, there was of course no way your mother could have joined and she told them that.  They wanted her to know however that they were very busy because they were regularly visiting you in the hospital.  Well, your mother was about as mad as I’ve ever seen her.  ‘Gwen,’ she said ‘How could they?  If they really wanted to be of service, why wouldn’t they come to my home and watch my other two children so that I could visit my own daughter in the hospital?””

She continued, “Annie, I think your mother had a lot of stories like this.  There were things she wished people could have or would have done to help.  But in that day and time, we didn’t say what we wanted.  We accepted what was there.  I know there were many people who were there for her and we all tried to help her as much as we could.”

We talked some more about what they knew about the accident.  I wondered how many other friends and neighbors in Green Bay had bits and pieces of the story like Teresa’s parents did.    It meant so much to have these details, to hear their recollections; to fill in the context I had been seeking.  I wondered too why some people like Teresa’s parents were so forthcoming and others so resistant.   I wondered if I had enough stories and if not, where to probe for more.

With warm hugs and muddy shoes from the garden visit, we pulled out of the driveway and returned to our reunion adventure.  I squeezed in time to see my brother coach his son in a kiddie football game and visit with my sister and sister-in-law.  When my sister Susie invited me to church on Sunday, I met them at our old parish, St. John the Evangelist, before driving back to Chicago.

Everything about the visit felt right — the warmth of a small town, the ease of going from Point A to Point B and the connections with the people gathered there that weekend.  Even my own Anne on Fire story felt right, that things happened just as I’d been told they did, that people knew, remembered and cared.  If you let it happen, you can always be home.

St. John the Evangelist Church, Green Bay