MICHIGAN MUSINGS: Songs for My Father
I am part of a devoted University of Michigan family: my older sister, younger twin brothers, and I all followed in our father’s footsteps and attended the University.
While my brothers and I were U-M students, our father was stricken with scleroderma, a deadly illness that wreaked havoc on his lungs. But that didn’t dull his enthusiasm for his alma mater. My brothers—perhaps the most “Go Blue” members of the family—belonged to the Men’s Glee Club, and my father, who loved classical music, enjoyed attending their concerts. As time passed, though, he got sicker and it became increasingly difficult for him to attend.
Early in 1997, the Glee Club performed at our old high school in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, which was fortunate for my father because he had gotten particularly weak. A trek to Ann Arbor may have been too much. So, oxygen tank in tow, he sat in the audience and enjoyed the performance. Unknown to him, though, the singers could hear the subtle hiss of his oxygen.
“Who was making that Darth Vader noise?” one singer complained after the performance. He was quickly reprimanded by a friend of my brothers. “That was Bill and Bob’s dad.”
Not long after that concert, my father passed away. We watched our mother struggle to make the funeral arrangements. During the final years of his life, my father had spent increasingly less time with his work peers, and she worried few people would show for the memorial service.
Meanwhile, the rest of us tried our best to put our lives on hold for that day. My brothers arranged to miss a performance scheduled for that weekend in Ohio. One of their friends said some of the group would skip it to attend the funeral. For my brother Bill, this would not do. He proceeded to email the entire Glee Club.
“I know some of you wish to attend my father’s memorial service. Although I appreciate the gesture, I know there is a concert scheduled that weekend. My father always taught us to adhere to our responsibilities. He loved the Glee Club, and he would want everyone to honor this commitment. Please don’t skip the Ohio concert for the memorial service.”
On the day of the service, a large bus pulled into the funeral home’s parking lot. Out came nearly 100 young men, dressed in sport coats and ties. Not only had my brother’s email gone unheeded, the entire group had done just the opposite. Director Jerry Blackstone had decided to redirect the travel route so Glee Club members could attend our father’s service. But that wasn’t all. The men were going to sing as well.
Friends and family packed the funeral home’s small chapel, and we sat solemn and numb as the pastor spoke of our father’s love of the University of Michigan: the football, the pride of seeing his children there, and, particularly, his enjoyment of listening to his sons sing as part of the Glee Club. He recounted how one of his last outings was to listen to the Glee Club perform at the high school.
“And so, today,” he said, “the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club is doing the honor of performing some pieces in memory of George Stevenson.”
With that, all the members of the Men’s Glee Club stood and raised their voices in song. They first sang the dirge from Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” in Latin. The crescendo of the voices filled the small chapel and reflected our emotional rawness, moving us in a way that only music can. I did not understand the translation until later, yet I could still feel the message of the song:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
When the group started singing its final piece, my brothers, clad in their first suits, rose from their seats to join them. Their voices carried just beyond the others, the deep notes richly embodying hope in the song “Salvation Is Created.”
I had heard the Glee Club before, but never like that day. People still tell my mother what a moving service it was, and the pastor would later write about this moment to his congregation, commending Jerry Blackstone for an action he could only describe as wisdom. I feel deeply honored that the Men’s Glee Club performed as they did for my father that day.
Debbie Stevenson Pecis, ’95, is a guest teacher and freelance writer, and blogs at debbiepecis.com. She lives with her family in Troy, Michigan.