More than three decades of alumni came together for a reunion concert Sunday afternoon to pay tribute and give thanks to the choir director who they said made such a difference in their lives.
At least 150 singers who graduated from Forest View High School or Elk Grove High School between 1972 and 2005 gathered for two hours of singing led by retired director Jerry Swanson.
After 30 years of teaching, Swanson retired in 2002. But nearly a decade later a group of his former students showed up at a Christmas concert he was directing at his church last winter and asked him to lead them in song one more time.
Swanson agreed and on Sunday about 1,500 people filled the field house at the Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights to watch the musical reunion, aptly titled "Notes of Thanks." Proceeds from the concert will benefit the District 214 Community Education Foundation.
"It seems like just yesterday we were singing these songs for the first time," Swanson told the crowd.
He slipped into his old teacher habits and congratulated the singers who had perfect attendance at all 15 rehearsals held over the past few months, while many participants were able to make only a few practices because of their schedules.
The songs ranged from a "Phantom of the Opera" medley to "O Holy Night" to the alma maters of the two high schools involved. Each song came with introductions either from Swanson or former students remembering a bit about the meaning of the tune and when they first sang it.
During the final song, a "Hallelujah" chorus, Swanson invited any other alumni who hadn't been able to make it to rehearsals to join them onstage and sing, bringing at least other 50 voices to the choir.
After his last bow Swanson was met with several minutes of a standing ovation and a crowd of people wanting to say hello, reminisce and introduce him to their family.
"I'm overwhelmed with the whole thing," he said. "Everyone has been so kind and generous."
During rehearsals and the concert, Swanson has been humble, deflecting the credit to the students he taught over the years, but those students said it was Swanson's teaching that made a difference for so many of them.
"He never gave up on us," said Mike Sorino, a 1976 graduate of Forest View who now lives in Naperville. "He was the most influential teacher in my life. I learned a lot, not just related to music, but life, responsibility, teamwork and respect."
One of the concert's organizers, Susan Miller of the Class of 1985 at Forest View, said the concert far surpassed her expectations.
"It was his life's work right in front of him," she said. "It was his legacy playing out over so many generations."