Memories of Mike

Thoughts at the passing of my brother, Michael, who moved on a week ago, July 11, 2017...

Michael

I’ve had a lot to think about during these last weeks, since just after Easter Sunday, when Mike received his diagnosis of a horrible and aggressive form of cancer. The battle was fierce but short. Mike was always so strong. It was painful to see a man of such strength hit so very hard.

His Strength….Going back to the days of our youth, Mike was incredibly strong. I may have been much taller, but he was still able to pin me with his knees holding my shoulders down…and then threaten to drool on my face. He'd then get up to continue to throw strike after strike when we'd play catch in our backyard. And, to be honest, most times I probably deserved the pinning and drooling. I loved those times.

He taught me how to load caps into a cap gun and how to attach baseball cards to the spokes of my bicycle to make that wonderful sound when the wheels went around. He taught me so many things...important things...and things that weren't.

We had many adventures together as children. It is a wonder that we didn't spend more time in hospitals and doctor's offices. There was the time when I swung too high on the swing set and the entire contraption tipped and fell over on his head. Not wanting to witness his agony, I just went inside...and hoped I wouldn't get in trouble. I knew I’d get clobbered for it later. Perhaps his "revenge" came a few years later when he threw a lawn dart that hit me in the head (luckily, I have a very hard cranium and the "Jart" bounced off). It was an accidental toss……I think.

We were so very different in so many ways...but yet, very much alike as well. For a long time, we shared a bedroom...and for several years, even the same large bed. He'd complain that the hairs on my legs were too prickly. He'd STRONGLY admonish me to stay on my own half of the bed. I think, to this day, that my HALF of the bed was much smaller than HIS HALF. We'd lay awake at night talking about all kinds of things, listening to ball games, or music from Chicago's powerhouse radio station, WLS----890 on your radio dial.


Years later, and when we finally had separate beds, he drove me nuts at night when he'd put on Dolly Parton records or Elton John. Tommy James and the Shondells were another favorite of his. How many times can you listen to "Mony, Mony", “My Baby does the Hanky Panky”, or”Crimson and Clover" ---over and over? How many times can you listen to Elton's "Crocodile Rock”? Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown”? Or even Dolly's "I'll always Love You"? But, last year, when I was working at an opera company on the east coast, Dolly came to give a concert on one of my off nights...and I made sure I was able to see her...and the memories of laying in the same bedroom and hearing Dolly singing on the record player were there.

I learned to drive a stick shift on one of Michael's first trucks. He didn't know it, thankfully. He was asleep after working a night shift...my buddy Scott Ireland and I "borrowed" his keys and took it out for a spin. Scott gave me directions on how to push the clutch and shift the gears---or did I shift the clutch and push the gears---they sure did make a lot of noise...but, thankfully, the transmission didn't get left scattered all over the road to Wilbern. Scott and I got the truck back in one piece...none worse for the wear (I hope)...and, even better, without Mike knowing. I just didn't want to get pinned down again or drooled on. I never told Mike that we did this...I knew life was much safer that way.

Mike would come to my concerts when I would sing nearby---I know he never really liked the music--nor did I ever believe that he'd become an opera fan...but he liked when I sang "New York, New York", "My Way" or country songs. He even took a crack at singing some of those songs on a karaoke night at a few favored establishments.

He read a lot and he knew something about a lot of things…just enough to keep it all interesting. And you know, that's a pretty neat thing. He preferred crime shows and Tom Clancy books and movies. And he could discuss and argue the news, politics, and anything else with the best of them. I liked that.

Just like Janet and me, he took piano lessons. He actually played pretty well for many years. The last time he visited us in Pennsylvania a few years back, he could still plunk out songs he'd learned nearly a half century ago--- "The Theme from Love Story" and "Blue Boogie". But, back in the day, after school, I would race home from the bus stop to beat him to the piano so that I could then go out and play earlier. Piano practice had to come before play in our house. Mike was more easy going and methodical--and got the job done. I respected him for that---on this, and on so many things.

Mike and I had a special whistle---only he and I knew and shared it. When we were looking for the other, and only the other, we'd pucker up and blow our special sound. We held onto that. In April, when I saw him after his diagnosis, I mentioned it to him...he knew exactly what I was talking about...but, trying to blow out the sound was a bit tougher that day...too much emotion was being shared instead.

He enjoyed playing clarinet and bass clarinet and being in the band in high school...playing for shows or marching in a parade.

He had an even louder voice than mine. OH, if he only had studied singing.
AFTER he graduated high school, he came back to play in the orchestra for our production of “Bye, Bye, Birdie”—just because Jack Schepper needed him...and Mike was always there when somebody needed him.

I can remember, however, the smile he brought to my face the night we sat at a table and he asked in a sort of strange tone, "Is all Opera in Latin???

Just so you know, I've never sung an opera in Latin in my life.

I remember a wonderful day in August of 1973. Mom and Dad left that day to take Janet to college in Springfield and left Mike and me home alone. We did a little fishing that day, a little swimming...and then, that evening, we decided to go see a movie. Now, you'd think that Mike would want to see a good western or something with a lot of action. What did we go see...at his suggestion? We went to the movie theater in Eureka to see---"The Sound of Music". Mike really enjoyed musicals. It's one of my favorite memories of my one on one times with my brother.

He liked to bowl.

He Loved playing pool and ping pong---we would play for HOURS---every moment that we could when the table was up in the house and Mom wasn't using it for sewing. Several times, we were almost late for school because of Ping Pong. We’d then go right back at it when we'd get home. I'm glad we got to play a game or two in our home a few years back.

How he loved His friends---Mel, Steve, Stan, and all the hunting and fishing buddies.
How he loved being with them and their families at Chetek or elsewhere.

I remember the sad but strong look he had on his face the morning he sat and held my Dad's hand just after he passed away 15 years ago---and seeing how his face would melt into pride when talking about Denise, Jarred or Jenni.

I remember the conversation I had with him on the phone in May when he partially broke down while expressing his thoughts about whether he'd make it to see Baby Krue, his newest grandchild---and he made it---and loves this baby--and how much he loves Peyton, Wyatt, and Waylon. It has been a gift to him to have them so close in these past weeks.

I remember him--
Traveling to take Mom and be with her in Cleveland when she had a heart procedure in 2004---I was fortunate to be in the city at the exact same time and enjoyed our time together just talking as the procedure successfully went on.

And again he escorted Mom to be with us in Pennsylvania when our oldest son got married 3.5 years ago. We were so happy that he could join us. Although my kids didn't get to spend all that much time with Uncle Mike, they always enjoyed those moments.

I remember him---
Loving his high school sweetheart Denise. I can remember double dating with them back in High School. The night of their wedding in September, 1979, was one of the happiest weddings I've ever attended---everyone knew that they just had to be together...it was right.

They grew and gave birth to a family--Two great children in Jarred and Jenni. They faced tough times on many fronts. Mike didn't stop pushing hard to get through them...different jobs, disappointments, strikes, layoffs, but he stayed dedicated--and loyal--to the union and to his company that often frustrated him.

Mike was loyal in all things...to his family, his job, and to, unfortunately, the Packers....and Cubs. I loved going around and around with him over these two flaws. To this day, I'm ALMOST happy the Cubs won the last World Series---just for him.

I remember, as well, when Denise and Mike visited us in Connecticut in 1994...we celebrated Jarred's 10th birthday on the trip. On that day, I took Mike, Denise, Jarred, Jenni, and our oldest son to New York City for the day---to ride the boat around Manhattan and show them where I so often worked. It was an incredibly bright and wonderful day as we visited the Empire State Building as well. Mike enjoyed that...Denise HATED New York traffic and east coast driving...and more than once, I think the car felt Mike's foot go through the floorboard as he sat in the passenger seat---but wishing he was in control of the car.

Mike wouldn't have handled living in a city...he lived just where he belonged all his life...and I'm grateful for that. He was a true Central Illinoisian...he knew ever creek and hollow between Wenona and Morton...knew where the mushrooms were, where the fish bit most abundantly, and where deer hid just awaiting those two weekends in late Fall...those weekends, spent with the hunting crew...they were NOT to be missed.

And, looking back, I've rarely been more happy than when we got to start together on the high school varsity basketball team.

Mike---was one of those guys who could make something happen just out of pure will---of diligence and being hard headed. He was a pretty STUBBORN guy. He wasn't the tallest basketball player by any stretch of the imagination--but, he was disciplined...year after year he was the best free throw shooter. He was also always one of the leading rebounders. He was TOUGH on the floor...just ask the kid from Gridley who is still probably hurting from the "charging call" he drew against Mike. Mike got kicked out of the game for that one...but I'm sure the Gridley guard would tell you, to this day, that Mike got the better end of the deal.

In junior high, he was a very fine discus thrower, advancing to the Regional Finals. In his freshman year of high school, he placed third in the conference golf meet--such a surprise to us all...and he'd never had a lesson. After he did so well, he started taking lessons...and he would have told you that he never played as well as he did before somebody told him how to play. He was that way. He could figure things out. He enjoyed golfing in the area golf leagues, and enjoyed bowling on teams as well.

He built and raced a car and could build things out of wood that were absolutely beautiful. He remodeled his basement into a great "man cave" and helped others on their farms and in their homes. He could shoot deer, turn it into sausage, and save the best pieces for later...he could fish with the best of them. And, he could cook all of his catch...and well. The freezer was always stocked with what he shot or caught...I admired that.

This wretched cancer was fast and aggressive. It wasn't something the doctors or any of us could quite "figure out". Yes, it was cruel...but, during these days, we saw the blessings that Mike gave us all. I saw a very loving family and a great group of lifelong friends lift each other up in support...

Mel, Steve, Stan (your families) and the rest of his great friends, thank you for your visits and expressions of support and care. I remember your days together with Mike from your youth....they were a HUGE part of who he was.

Krystin...thank you for the care you helped provide and the support you continue to give to Jarred, Mike's cherished son, and to your children and Mike's grandchildren.

Jarred, I know how desperately you wanted to get off the USS Carl Vinson to just be with your Dad during these weeks...I praise God for your service to our country...but far more for you service and love to your Dad and to your family.

Jenni, our conversations in person or via text show your admiration and love of your Dad...how he loved you and wanted always what was best for his little girl. The pictures I have of you with Mike at Lambeau Field when he finally got to visit the Frozen Mecca for Football fans are some of my favorites--and you can see, by the look on his face, that they were some of his favorites moments of life as well. I'm so happy that he got to meet little Krue...and I know how much this means to you as well. Thank you, as well, Eric, for all your help to Mike---and to Jenni.

Mom and Janet...my heart breaks for us all as we lost such a devoted son and brother---a rock--a steady force and strong spirit whom we loved so dearly.

And that goes for his entire large, extended family. He enjoyed spending time with his relatives---Aunts, Uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, sisters and brothers in laws---such a wonderful family---all reaching out to show so much support in these weeks. Thank you for all of that.

And Denise---seeing you lie on the bed last week, just rubbing Mike's arm...being there...loving him...loving your all too short time...he knew just how important your lives were together...your very special bond...he felt and knew your love. That love was established over 40 years ago...was noticed by all who would see the two of you together. I was happy to see your love grow then...and to see it fast and solid to this day. He was greatly blessed because of this....thank you for all that you have always been to Mike...and to us all. As Dolly said, he (and all of us) will always love you.

May our most gracious, loving, and merciful God be with you-and all of us-now and forever. And may Mike, who was so strong, be lifted into God's even stronger, loving arms, to be at peace and rest...now and forever.


Oresting in Vienna

Tonight, we wind up a short run of “Elektra” in Vienna. It has been a VERY gratifying time with this incredible opera company which has surely become one of my favorites over the last few years. I’m already looking forward to coming back to Austria for two trips this Fall and then for a longer stay next May-June. There is something very special about this old city--its architecture, cuisine, and love for culture.

I’ll be headed home to do a little teaching and then head, in a few weeks, to serve as Master Clinician at The Miami Summer Music Festival Wagner Intensive Program. I also will appear on a concert of Wagner excerpts at the end of the two week program. I am very much looking forward to working with the young singers as they develop into the next generation of Wagner Artists.

I can’t believe that the summer is nearly half over (at least concerning the academic schedule at Wichita State University). It seems like graduation was just a week ago. This next year is going to be extremely challenging as I take over the duties of Opera Director. This will be on top of my teaching schedule and performance career. I have a lot of plans and ideas--seeing them into action may be the tricky part. We have a very talented group of young singers and presenting “L’Elisir d’amore” and “Le Nozze di Figaro” is going to be a lot of fun. In addition, we will have a scenes program which will go a long way towards developing the next great group of young singing actors. The synthesis of acting and singing is what makes opera truly grand. It is completely about Richard Wagner’s “Gesamtkunstwerk”--whether it be Wagner, Mozart, Puccini, Donizetti, Hegge, or Berg (although I don’t think we’ll be doing the repertoire of a few of those composers---RATS!!!).

I hope to have a bit of personal time this summer to just relax...there won’t be much of that, I’m sure. We will enjoy performances at Music Theater of Wichita---such an excellent company. Summer is such a wonderful time (and I love the heat). I hope that you have many evenings to just enjoy a sunset, sip a lemon-aid, hear a concert, take a nice walk, and just enjoy a slower paced time of year. The days are already getting shorter. Snow is closer rather than farther away. Enjoy the sun while you can!!!

Meet me in St. Louis...

It is wonderful to be back in St. Louis for concerts with the magnificent St. Louis Symphony Orchestra of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer”. This is my third time to perform with this orchestra under the baton of Maestro David Robertson. These are semi-staged concerts with video projections on enormous sails that indicate the Dutchman’s tall sailing masts. It’s thrilling to be performing with such a great group of musicians. Great to be back.

Many of you know that St. Louis has always been one of my favorite cities. This dates back to my childhood when I first became a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. I attended my first major league game here in 1971. I followed those heroes of my youth quite closely and sought every score and statistic. Many nights, my sleeping was delayed by listening to the games on a transistor radio which was placed under my pillow.

What a thrill it was, yesterday, to visit the St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Fame. I was able to hold the bats of Stan “The Man” Musial and Lou Brock and wear two World Series Champion Rings. I saw displays concerning the history of this great team. I had a tour of Busch Stadium (the third version) and was in the dugout. It was just a very moving day for this Cardinal fan.

St. Louis is also where my wife and I spent a very brief honeymoon 35 years ago this month. It is hard to believe that my dear Nancy and I have been married this long. It seems like yesterday when we were students together at Millikin University (about 120 miles away). On our honeymoon, we visited The Goldenrod Showboat for a melodrama and went to the St. Louis Zoo as well. We had less than 36 hours or so to visit the city as I had to be back in Decatur, Illinois to help lead a summer music organization. Those were hectic days..and things haven’t slowed down much over the years. On the contrary, with four kids, performing and teaching careers, many moves, and so many changes from year to year, it’s been an incredible and mind spinning adventure. And we are grateful for every turn.

Thankfully, Wichita is not so far from St. Louis. We can make it here in just about 6.5 hours by car. I hope to spend more time here in the future to visit the wonderful opportunities this city offers, including the incredible Cathedral-Basilica and its nearly indescribable mosaics. The great arch beckons those from the east to visit the great west. And it shows those of us who have passed through this city that connections back to the east are calling as well. Journeys continue both ways past that great croquet wicket looking structure. May our journeys always bring us back to where we have our most wonderful memories and may we hold onto the roots that so firmly feed us through life.

New and Old Roles

The past few weeks have been beyond hectic. Just over two weeks ago, I was thrilled to return to the Washington Concert Opera for the first time since 1989. Although my face is seen regularly in Washington, D.C., it has been way too long since I’ve performed with this organization. The performance was of Beethoven’s “Leonore”. Now, I’ve sung the opera “Fidelio” over 100 times. However, this was the first time I performed in the predecessor to Beethoven’s great opera. It was extremely interesting to see how the opera evolved from the original version to the opera we’ve come to know so well. One had to be careful not to get the versions backwards in your mind when trying to sing the music that was familiar but not all together the same. I so enjoyed this event and being back in Foggy Bottom.

I came home to Wichita and immediately dove into continued music rehearsals for our Spring Opera, Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” at Wichita State University. This was the first time I have been so heavily involved on the production side of a creation. Rehearsals began in January and the students worked VERY hard these past two months. The results were astounding. We wrapped up the run yesterday. I have to admit, it was strange for me to see my name listed in the program but not on the cast page. And, as of this Fall, that will be the case more and more as I am taking over as the Director of Opera at Wichita State. I look forward to programming interesting productions and challenging the students. I look forward to both staged and non-staged productions...all with the intent of helping to educate our young singers, train them both musically and dramatically, and entertain the audiences of Wichita and beyond.

We at WSU owe so much gratitude to Marie King, our current Director of Opera who has held the position since 1997. Before her, my mentor, Dr. George Gibson, held the position for nearly 30 years. Taking on the position, that has only been held by two extraordinary directors over the past half century, is a daunting task. Our program has turned out some outstanding singing actors including Sam Ramey, Joyce DiDonato, and so many others (and I’ve been known to perform a bit as well). The challenge is huge...but I’m very excited about all that lies ahead.

Tonight, I updated the “Calendar” section on my website. I am thrilled to share the information regarding the performances this Fall with The Cleveland Orchestra. As part of their 100th Anniversary Season, they have decided to bring back some of their favorite programs of the past century. I am so happy that they have decided to revive our “Cunning Little Vixen” production from 2014. What a GREAT spectacle it is!!! And, to top it off, we will take the production to Vienna and Luxembourg.

I’ve added a few other items to the schedule as well...I’m so happy and blessed to be able to continue in these various roles. Educator, Director, and Singer....and full time Shocker fan!!!

Singing at Home

This weekend, I’m singing two concerts with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus at Century 2 here in Wichita (of course). On the program is quite a bit of Wagner but also some Puccini, Bizet, Borodin, and Verdi. It’s a huge, meaty, and thrilling concert full of repertoire that tickles the ears and ignites the soul. It is also dog gone difficult to sing.

I am absolutely thrilled with how wonderful the Wichita Symphony, under the baton of Music Director, Maestro Daniel Hege, are playing this great music. What a wonderful full sound. And the chorus has blazed through their great choruses as well (under the direction of Dr. Michael Hanawalt, my colleague at Wichita State University.

So many in the orchestra are colleagues of mine at WSU. It has been great to see them dive into this music--much of it new to them. Several of the pieces we are presenting in Wichita are being programmed for the first time in Wichita. I am greatly enjoying bringing a bit of what I do on the road to the audiences here in Wichita. And, I have to say, it is wonderful to only have to commute around 20 minutes from our house to the concert hall.

This city, the arts in this city, its’ musicians, and its’ incredible talent, mean so much to me. As you know, I received my Masters Degree from WSU. I have, over the last nearly 35 years, stayed in contact with the university during my performing career and always enjoyed every trip back to Kansas for a recital, concert, or master class. But, nearly 3 years ago, we decided to make Wichita our home once again. I don’t know that I fully expected to see such professionalism in my colleagues...such a dedication to their craft. Our faculty is young, vibrant, and incredibly talented. They are helping to enrich the lives of their students, their orchestral members, and the entire South Central Kansas region. This is a QUALITY orchestra of great skill. I am honored to have sung with them last night and look forward to our second concert in just a few hours.

After today’s concert, I’ll have a week of teaching (happy to only wear one hat for the week) before flying to D.C. next week for a concert of Beethoven’s “Leonore”, the early version of what was to become one of my most performed operas, “Fidelio”. I’ll be performing with the Washington Concert Opera, a company I haven’t performed with since 1989. I’m so looking forward to being back in Foggy Bottom--a place that has been near the center of my career for so many years.

The concerts are challenging and fulfilling, the weather has been gorgeous, and the best time of year, college basketball season, is upon us (and going well for the Shockers). Despite all the discord and angst in our lives, it is great to know that so much can be surpassed by the beauty of music, the dedication and discipline of fine artists and colleagues, and the desire to enrich others through our talents. May that long be the goal and standard.