West Chicago High piano man celebrates 50 years
Ron Benner never imagined he would still be sitting at the piano in West Chicago Community High School's choir room 50 years after he arrived.
But it's there he sits four days a week, a worn binder full of sheet music laid out on the shiny black Yamaha, his toes tapping at the pedals, fingers effortlessly striking the right keys.
If you goWhat: West Chicago Community High School Choir Concert, with recognition for accompanist and former director Ron Benner
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19
Where: Weyrauch Auditorium at West Chicago Community High School, 326 Joliet St., West Chicago
For more than two decades, the 78-year-old led the choir students, singing along with them and teaching them proper techniques. Now, he's the piano man -- a loyal accompanist, for sure, yet also a mentor and friend to director Brandon Fantozzi and the teenage musicians.
"I'm glad," Benner says with a smile. "This has been my joy, to be at this school. It's a great school."
Benner will be recognized for his 50 years of service during the choir's final concert of the school year at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19, in the school's Weyrauch Auditorium.
"He truly has a heart of gold," Fantozzi said. "He does this because he loves students and music making."
Benner started his career in downstate Illinois, jumping from one building to another for six years to teach band and choir at the grade school and high school level.
"I wanted a school that I could have just all choirs and really nothing else," he said.
So, in 1966 -- a year long before current students, and even many of their parents, were born -- Benner came to West Chicago, where some stability was greatly needed for the choirs.
"There wasn't any continuity at all here at that time," Benner said, recalling that the school had four choir directors in four years before he arrived. "That was my job, to make it continuous so kids would see that someone was interested in them all the way through. But little did I know I'd be here 50 years."
For the next 27 years, Benner dedicated himself to the program, carefully honing it to become award-winning and well-respected.
Madrigals, a singing group that performs songs from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, had begun shortly before Benner arrived. He amped up the program, which went on to earn first-place prizes under Benner's leadership.
Benner also directed five musicals between 1977 and 1983. In 1974, he formed the school's first swing choir, even though he couldn't do many of the steps himself.
"It was a thing I felt we needed because we didn't have anything with dancing at all," he said.
Another highlight of Benner's time as director was taking his students to sing with Ann Jillian at the Palmer House in Chicago.
"To see my group sing with an orchestra and a movie star was wonderful," he said.
Tim Wierenga of Winfield was a member of the madrigals, the show choir, a community choir Benner formed to celebrate the nation's bicentennial, and a barbershop quartet during his time at West Chicago Community High School. The 1979 graduate said Benner was a thorough music instructor but, more importantly, one of the first people to encourage students to take on leadership roles, including Wierenga, who is now an assistant superintendent for Naperville Unit District 203.
Wierenga has stayed in contact with Benner over the years, visiting his house on occasion with his children, who have admired Benner's large model train collection. He and his wife -- who also had Benner as a choir instructor -- even invited Benner to play the piano at their wedding. "He's just a special guy," Wierenga said. "I think he's influenced a lot of young people in West Chicago over the years, and I think people have many fond memories of their time in the choir program because of his service."
Benner retired from the school in 1993, but continued coming back as a substitute teacher. He dedicated more time to his role as music director of the First United Methodist Church in West Chicago, a position he has held since 1990. Only a few years passed after retirement before he was asked to come back to the school's choir department as an accompanist.
"It isn't quite as stressful," he said with a laugh. "But it is stressful when it comes to concerts. You've got to come through for the kids and the director, and I try my hardest to satisfy those people because they mean the world to me."