By Tom Ehrich
Walking home on Stony Kill Road, I found myself humming the "Sanctus" from Charles Gounod's "St Cecilia Mass."
I could do that because a young choral director named Don Neuen believed high school students could sing the best of all music. With voices that probably were more reedy than I remember, we could dig deep, soar to the heavens, and sing Vivaldi, Schubert, Bach, Handel, Rossini and even the sublime mass that Gounod composed in 1851-1855.
I can still remember the first time, after weeks of learning our parts, our choir rehearsed with professional instrumentalists and soloists. After a single chord, the tenor began the theme of the "Sanctus," followed by choir, tenor again, and choir -- leading up to the single most stunning choral experience I ever had: the breathtaking "Hosanna in Excelsis" that concludes the movement. (Listen here to one recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgwm5ZuXWC8)
Saint Cecilia, a Second Century martyr, is the patron saint of musicians. Our hero, though, was Mr. Neuen, still a graduate student at Ball State University, recently brought to Shortridge High School, in Indianapolis, where some 400 students were signed up for choral groups ranging from novice to expert. He later went on to greatness as one of America's leading choral directors.
He led us with a firm hand and the highest expectations of quality. Many of us worked harder for him than for any teacher or subsequent employer. A teacher who believes in children and youth can lead them beyond the wilderness of self-doubt and indifference where so many young people languish.
I share this with you for two reasons. First, I hope we all can remember at least one teacher who inspired us to a greatness we couldn't have imagined. Even today, I hope we can hum a tune, remember a book, treasure an experience, savor an achievement, when someone who believed in us enabled us to believe in ourselves. There is no higher calling than teaching children and youth.
Second, leaders like Don Neuen expose the utterly vapid and self-serving nature of so many would-be leaders today. A sneering demagogue like Ted Cruz or bully like Donald Trump couldn't carry the shoes of someone like Don Neuen.
Too many of those who would lead us are men and women without character. They don't believe in us; they believe only in the wealth and power to be gotten from public office. They harvest our fears and distill fear into anger, and then bid us drink deeply of hatred. There will be no singing of Gounod with them, no fervent joining of hearts in "America the Beautiful," no reaching for greatness.
It is tragic. And it is up to us -- the "We the people" on whom this nation is founded -- to demand something better.