Sunday, March 28, 2010

Singing in spring

Ricky Tims--quilter extraordinaire, music producer and fellow tenor in the Donald B. Cowan Legacy Choir--in the midst of yet another blizzard blowing down the front range the other day asked, "What's a sure sign of spring in your neck of the woods?" Ricky, you see, calls Colorado home these days, and the question was posed to his hundreds of far-flung friends, fans and followers of his Facebook page. I pondered Ricky's timely question for a couple of nanoseconds and watched my fingers respond, "The return of the storm chasers!"

Okay, so I'm given to sarcasm. It's a curse; my cross to bear. Truth is--for those who do not live in Tornado alley--storm chasers are fairly late spring arrivals. Generally speaking, it takes a bit more heat than the ides of March typically muster to make our Rolling Plains weather get seriously interesting.

So how does one know spring has arrived on the soft underbelly of the Great Plains? It woke me this morning just as the sun was peeking in at my bedroom window; a male mockingbird proudly proclaiming his territory from the topmost branch of my neighbor's pecan tree. Mockingbird song may not do it for everyone, but it's good enough for me.

The Northern mockingbird inhabits all of North America from southern Canada down to Central America, but it seems to have a preference for the Gulf Coast. The Texas legislature named Mimus polyglottos, roughly translated "mimics many tongues", as Texas' official State Bird back in 1927. The mocker also has been adopted by Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee.

While mockingbirds remain year round in this neck of the plains, they are at their vocal peak when their avian hormones push them to songs of nesting and all that goes along with that. Other males invest in showy Easter finery to strut their stuff and woe the ladies. Not the mockers. Males maintain their gray and white feathers year round and depend on stitching together a prize-winning string of vocal strains to go a-courting. Spring inspired males may string together up to a couple dozen measures borrowed from the sounds of their habitat, including cell phone ring tones.

Henbit may bloom, crocus and daffodils may lift their showy heads and the air fill with the explosive sounds of allergy-inspired sneezing. All fickle signs of spring at best. When the pre-dawn chill is broken by the mockingbird's trill, it's time to pack away the long johns and dust off the weather-alert radio! The storm chasers won't be long in appearing.

Well, the first mass rehearsal of the Donald B. Cowan Legacy Choir is set for 2 o'clock this afternoon. Singers from 32 years of Don Cowan's Rider High School A Cappella Choirs will meet in Wichita Falls to begin work on a grand concert scheduled for June 25, 2011. Follow our progress at

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A man and his music....One More Time

Donald Bruce Cowan stood on a slight rise of empty plains southwest of Wichita Falls one early spring morning in 1960. Heavy construction equipment soon would begin etching the footprint of a new high school into the red clay soil where he stood. Accompanied only by sighing wind, the trill of meadowlarks and a creaky old pump jack, this rookie music teacher stood listening to a dream.

Born in Fargo, ND, Don Cowan grew up in Moorhead, MN, literally in the shadow of Concordia College, home of Concordia Choir, the House of Paul J. Christiansen and a bastion of the Lutheran a cappella choral tradition established in this country by Paul's legendary immigrant Norwegian father, F. Melius Christiansen.

A sneak peek of what was to come emerged at Moorhead High School where Don Cowan was student director of a 120-voice choir. Cowan was graduated from Moorhead High in May of 1950. North Korea invaded South Korea that June, and Cowan enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he was assigned to the 761st Air Force Band at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, TX. Initially assigned as a clarinetist, he worked his way through three dance bands attached to SAFB to play alto saxophone with the top band, the Airliners.

The Airliners played for USO dances at the Women's YWCA in town, and Cowan received $9 a night for the 4-hour gigs. He would find something much more valuable than the cash before the last dance.

Barbara June Humphries. A dark-haired beauty with poise, grace and moves on the dance floor that were impossible not to notice. And Cowan noticed. Every night that Barbara June came to the club, Cowan noticed little else. But what chance did a tall, skinny kid with a goofy grin have with a beauty like her? As it happened, Barbara June's best friend was married to a fellow saxophone player in the Airliners. Cowan's colleague told him that his wife had told him that Barbara June had said, "You know, Don Cowan is kind of cute, don't you think?"

Did not take long after that for Cowan to take a break from the band and ask June for a dance.

Cowan's enlistment ended shortly before Christmas, 1954. He took his honorable discharge and headed home to Moorhead but soon discovered that his heart had failed to make the trip. Before the snows had begun to melt Cowan returned to Wichita Falls and took Barbara June for his bride.

He registered at Midwestern University to seek a degree in music education. Signing up at the band table, he was told he would have to march. Cowan told the nice lady he had spent the last four years marching. He really did not care to march. The nice lady told him he would have to march if he joined the band program.

Cowan smiled, turned on his heel and crossed the hall to the choir registration table.

He earned a Bachelor Of Music Education with a major in choral music, minor in voice, in 1958. The Wichita Falls Independent School District immediately offered a position teaching choir at Reagan Junior High School. The following year he established a choir program at the new Barwise Junior High School, with a brand new high school waiting just around the corner.

S.H. Rider High School opened for classes in the fall of 1961. Cowan composed words and music for the school's Alma Mater and wrote the music for the Fight Song. His first choir department consisted of 59 students in two choirs founded in the Lutheran a cappella tradition. One afternoon while perusing sheet music at Max Kruetz House of Music, he noticed a sign over a bin that read "Greatest Choir Ever". Cowan asked the late Max Kruetz if he might buy the sign. After hearing why the choir director wanted it, Kruetz gave the sign to him.

The next morning students noisily settled into the choir room. "Shut up, spit out your gum and sit down!" Cowan called out with what would become a signature call to order. "See that sign?" Cowan said, pointing to the new sign placed upside down in the window of his office. "When I decide you have earned the right to call yourselves the 'Greatest Choir Ever', I'll turn the sign right side up."

For 32 years Rider's elite A Cappella Choirs strove to turn that sign over. In the course of that quest they recorded 30-odd albums and performed in Washington, D.C., the State Capital in Austin, Mexico City and the major cathedrals of Europe.

Don Cowan touched and shaped the lives of nearly 3,000 students in his three decades at Rider. He still considers alumni of his choirs his "kids". June 25, 2011, a bunch of Cowan's Kids will return to the Memorial Auditorium stage as the Donald B. Cowan Legacy Choir to sing some two-hours' worth of Cowan's favorite selections just One More Time!

For more information on this historic concert please visit our website

Friday, March 12, 2010

On old friends rediscovered

" Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." ~ John Lennon

Friends, forgive me for being away so long. It's been four months since my last confession. Most likely I would not be back here now had I not virtually ran on to a dear friend from S.H. Rider High School. I say "virtually" because we've been visiting one another in emails since I'm here in Texas and she is in South Carolina.

Since I did not ask her permission to use her name, I'll call her "Dee". One critique she had concerning this blog in particular and my writing in general is that I quote too many other writers. Naturally, then, I had to kick start this session with a quote, just to show her I can take a hit and keep on a-typing! Somehow she got the notion I pull these quotes right out of my head as needed. Not the case at all, Dear Readers. I pull 'em out of Google!

Dee and I reconnected because a bunch of us from the old school are getting up a reunion next year (and I'll have more to say about that project later). Through a half dozen or so email exchanges we've been catching up on roads, taken and not taken, in the course of some 43 years since she and I walked off the Memorial Auditorium stage as brand spanking new high school graduates. Seems we have concluded that John Lennon got it right, for the most part.

My life certainly has not followed the course I had envisioned for myself back then. And Dee? Well! Dee is next to the last person I would have tagged back in '67 to become an ordained minister and chaplain! Girls were not getting to go down that road a lot back then, for one thing; and for the other, well, Dee just didn't strike me as the backward-white-collar type. I mean, she wrote the first gossip column to be allowed into our school newspaper, for heaven's sake!

Isn't it funny how a friend seems to drop by just when you need someone to jerk your own head out of yourself? Dee probably won't go along with that. She subscribes to the Shit Happens Philosophy of Life, while I'm still casting about for rhymes and reasons. I look forward to continuing debate with her on that, overwhelming her with my ability to pull up and spit out quotes!