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updated: 9/3/2012 6:57 AM

Retired Dist. 214 choral director returning for holiday concert

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  • Jennie Steljes of Elgin sings with other former District 214 chorale groups.

       Jennie Steljes of Elgin sings with other former District 214 chorale groups.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Jerry Swanson of Elk Grove Village directs members of his District 214 chorale groups from the past 30 years in preparation for their November concert.

       Jerry Swanson of Elk Grove Village directs members of his District 214 chorale groups from the past 30 years in preparation for their November concert.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Jerry Swanson of Elk Grove Village is coming out of retirement to direct members of his District 214 chorale groups in a November concert.

       Jerry Swanson of Elk Grove Village is coming out of retirement to direct members of his District 214 chorale groups in a November concert.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer


More than 200 singers from different generations will come together for a concert this fall that is part reunion, part tribute to the man who helped them fall in love with music all those years ago.

Jerry Swanson, now retired and in his mid-60s, was the choral director at Forest View High School in Arlington Heights from 1971 until the school closed in 1986, and at Elk Grove High School from 1986 until his retirement in 2002.

Swanson's choral groups sang with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra more than a dozen times, won awards in state competition, performed all over the Northwest suburbs, and toured Europe every few years.

Nearly a decade after he retired, more than 20 former students showed up at a Christmas concert Swanson was directing at his church last winter.

"We ambushed him a little," admitted Susan Miller, a 1985 graduate living in Hanover Park.

The group asked Swanson to direct them one more time, and to their delight, he said yes.

More than 200 people are expected to participate in the holiday show, representing about 10 percent of the nearly 2,000 students who passed through Swanson's music program over the years.

"I was thrilled. I was flattered. I love rehearsing and being with people who are excited about music," Swanson said -- deflecting most of the credit for his inspirational teaching career onto his students, who have turned out in droves for monthly rehearsals throughout the summer.

The concert, aptly titled Notes of Thanks, will be a musical thank-you note to a director whom students say taught them more than just singing lessons.

"He's always been very humble," Miller said of Swanson.

But it's his passion, both for them and the music, that his students say shines through.

Sometimes after a particularly striking performance at rehearsal, Swanson will fall quiet for a few extra seconds before moving forward, a rarity for a man whose voice can carry over those of 50 singers.

"He's just drinking in the sound. There are some emotional moments, and I'm sure there will be more as we get closer to the show," Miller said.

Miller is helping organize the reunion concert with fellow 1985 graduate Marie Larsen.

With graduates from 1973 through 2004 represented in the group -- including a mother-daughter pair -- the concert is a chance for music lovers of all ages to sing as one.

"The music transcends years and generations. That's what makes it fun. You meet people 20 years older than you or 20 years younger, but it's like we've known each other all our lives because we have this one really cool thing in common," Miller said.

During the months of planning, Swanson has been picking the songs, a mixture of classics and favorites ranging from "Hallelujah!" to "O Holy Night," to the alma maters for the two schools where Swanson taught.\

Alumni come to rehearsals when they can.

"I'm excited to see people I knew, meet new people, and mostly just to be singing with Mr. Swanson again," said Jannie Steljes of Elgin, a 2003 graduate of Elk Grove High School.

With alumni flying in from all over the country for the Sunday, Nov. 25, concert, the first time the whole group will sing together will be a Friday night rehearsal the day after Thanksgiving.

Technology has played a big role in making the reunion happen.

Alumni of all ages met up on Facebook, recordings of rehearsals are posted online for participants from far away to listen to and practice with, and a website and group email keeps 200 people in sync.

Jack Martin, Swanson's former boss, often attends practices just to watch his old friend in front of a group of students again.

"He was the ultimate teacher," said Martin, who now lives in Arlington Heights and who was principal at Forest View from 1970 to 1984, then at Prospect High School from 1984 to 1987.

When Martin hired Swanson, there were 37 kids in the choral music program at Forest View -- mainly girls -- but Swanson more than doubled participation by his second year and helped turn the program into one of the most renowned in the country.

"He's demanding, but he knows exactly what he wants," Martin said. "Anyone can set the bar, but getting kids to jump over it is what teaching is about, and that's what Jerry did."

Former students from all walks of life are coming back because of just that.

"He never gave up on us," said Mike Sorino, a 1976 graduate of Forest View. "He was the most influential teacher in my life. I learned a lot, not just related to music, but life, responsibility, teamwork and respect."

Sorino, of Naperville, said he found singing in a choir at college was a big letdown because no one could match the passion and quality of choral leadership he found under Swanson.

For some former students, the concert is a chance to come full circle, singing under the direction of the man who inspired them to pursue a career in music.

Chris Buti, a 1985 graduate of Forest View, is now the band director at Rolling Meadows High School.

"When I first started at Rolling Meadows, he was still at Elk Grove and it was a little unusual at first because this was someone I had looked up to so much and it seems so surreal to be on the same level as him professionally," said Buti, who lives in Lake Zurich.

Buti said he's looking forward to the reunion concert and hopes to get some of his current District 214 students involved in the big night.

"He's such a fine musician; he really brings out the best in people," Buti said.

While some of Swanson's students have made music a career, others haven't sung since high school but were surprised at how quickly the skill came back.

"There is something profound about one teacher having so much of an impact on his students' lives that so many years later we can gather 200 people for a concert and have it feel like we're back in the theater again," Miller said. "I feel like I'm 16 again. I feel like I'm back in high school and the world is at my fingertips just because I'm here, singing with this director."

Notes of Thanks will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25, in the field house of the Forest View Educational Center, 2121 Goebbert Road, Arlington Heights. Miller is expecting more than 1,000 people. Tickets are on sale at the educational center box office. Prices are $7 in advance, $10 at the door. Admission for kids 12 and younger is free. Proceeds benefit the District 214 Community Education Foundation.


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