This is a piece I wrote for the alternative local news site J created and maintains, for which I now work. It is a personal story of my experience of the celebration of life service for a beloved choral director. It is published, with additional photos, here.
What was so valuable for me in writing this piece is that after I published it and re-read, I realized that the thing with the Christmas lights wasn’t my real Mr. Brown Story. My regret over not auditioning for Madrigals actually changed the way I parented. I encouraged the girls to try out for things, to go after the dance parts and musical theatre roles and to be brave. And they did, and continue to, creating the best friendships and experiences of their young lives. Which was indirectly about Mr. Brown and is truly life altering.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Bowling Green was nearly full for Jim Brown’s Celebration of Life service Saturday morning. I scanned the crowd as people filed in, looking mostly for those I remembered from high school. We sat in the section to the right of the pulpit with other members of the Memorial Choir. Stacey (Timmons) Higgins from the Class of 1990 was sitting on my left; Amanda Gullufsen, a fellow graduate of the Class of 1991, was on my right. Both had been Madrigal Singers with Mr. Brown in High School and had traveled with him to the former Soviet Union as it was crumbling. I had been in regular Choir my 10th – 12th grade years, singing such memorable pieces as “I Sing The Body Electric” (from FAME) and the Rutter Requiem. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Brown had known John Rutter personally.
My husband, John Zibbel, had graduated from BGHS some years after me and had been fortunate enough to be a student in the first Humanities Class co-taught by Mrs. Dianne Klein (Former English / Creative Writing) and Mr. Brown in their last years teaching before retirement. John’s class in the 98-99 school year was themed “Making The Midwest Home.” They traveled by bus to Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In speaking about the Humanities class, Mrs. Klein stated that due to the closeness that the groups experienced from traveling around the country together, the students became family to Mr. Brown as much as his own blood relatives. John’s classmate Jessica Snyder Ruffner commented, “The humanities class had a major impact on me and I am forever thankful to her [Klein] and Mr. Brown for choosing me to participate.” I know John felt similarly.
As I continued watching, I spotted Class of 91 alumna and friend Michelle (Whitacre) Crites. I saw Dr. Eric Myers, former principal of BGHS and school board member, and Mayor Dick Edwards and his wife Nadine. And Andy Halleck. “Did you know he was a Madrigal my senior year?” Amanda whispered to Stacey. “He had chops!”
I was happy to hear this, because as well as being his student, I had also been Mr. Brown’s neighbor, living with my parents and brother diagonally across the street on North Prospect. Mom had told me Mr. Brown’s stately Victorian had been purchased by The Hallecks, and being reminded that Andy had been a Madrigal made me feel pleased that he would be honoring the memory of Mr. Brown which surely infused the house. The positive impact Mr. Brown had on those elite, beautifully-voiced Madrigal Singers through the years was always very evident to me. They were the best of the best, braving auditions I was never able to face.
“I was trying to think of a ‘Mr. Brown Story’ to share, and I couldn’t think of any at first,” Amanda confided in a low voice while we waited for the service to start. Her mother, Linda Gullufsen, was the director of the Memorial Choir and a former colleague and dear friend of Mr. Brown’s. At the first rehearsal, she had stated, Everyone has a Jim Brown story, and she had shared a few of her own through tears. Amanda continued, “I finally thought of one. He gave me the only B I ever got. And it was a B minus! In Choir! When I went to him to ask why, he looked at me and replied simply, ‘Just shut up!’” She grinned. The admonition had been spoken in a direct, but light hearted way. “And oh, I knew he was right. I was a talker for sure. But what was I supposed to do? I was in the back next to… oh you know, Alex DePue. And Dave McCutcheon. But he was right, and I learned so much from that.”
While the organ prelude rang out through the church, I thought about my own Mr. Brown Story. What could I say about him? He hadn’t changed the course of my life. I hadn’t traveled with him the way Stacey, Amanda, and even my own husband had. But, I was his neighbor. And I thought about how beautiful his house always looked decorated for Christmas, and how sad it was the first Christmas after he’d passed away to see it dark and bare. My friend and neighbor Geoff Howes had even written a haiku about it. But during my junior high, high school, and college years that house had been the beacon of holiday cheer, and when Mr. Brown’s white lights and garland went up, we truly knew the Christmas Season had arrived. That, then, was my story.
The service started and the congregation sang a hymn. Then there was a prayer, and Mr. Brown’s younger brother, Bob, got up to speak. He thanked Mrs. Klein and others for taking care of his older brother’s health when he hadn’t been able to; and thanked Mrs. Gullufsen, Mrs. VanBlaricom (former BGHS German teacher) and others for putting together the Memorial Choir, a group of former students, colleagues, and friends of Jim Brown’s spanning fifty years who had been moved to travel from near and far to sing and remember him. Bob then told stories about Jim as a child; talked about Jim’s love of music and theatre and directing and how a severe illness his senior year of high school got him started on piano; talked about his travels, and all the famous people he’d met. Bob became too choked up to speak at least once, and made everyone laugh several times. He then leaned over, looked at Reverend Spicer almost impishly, and apologized to him in advance before telling the final story. He talked about going to visit his brother, whose name just happened to be James Brown, a common name he shared with another, rather more well known musician. Bob said that he would do the James Brown yell for his brother, and he did it right there. “AAAOOOWW! James Brown! I feel good!” And he said his brother Jim would be always be embarrassed, and afterward would whisper an affectionate, brotherly “Stop it.”
Then Bob told us all to stand, and to yell it with him. So we did. “AAAOOOWW! James Brown! I feel good!” Do it again, he said, and we obliged. Then he paused and whispered into the microphone “Stop it.” The church erupted into spontaneous applause, which felt only natural at a celebration of life for a consummate showman.
Daniel Boyle, also from the class of 91, accompanied the choir on piano and had composed a gorgeous original piece called “Thank You, Mr. Brown” which he played beautifully. Next to me, Amanda dabbed at tears with one of the tissues Stacey had thoughtfully given us before the service. Dan also played the postlude on organ, the Widor Toccata, which he later said he had just played for the congregation at his own church for Easter.
Soon we were standing up and joining the other choir members on the risers for “Breathe On Me, Breath Of God.” The story about this song is that the Madrigals sang it in Estonia, in a building so cold they actually could see the white plumes of their own breath. Having attended only one of the rehearsals I was sight reading, but I was proud of the way I had no trouble keeping up and blending my rusty alto with the voices of the rest of the choir, one eye on Linda’s flying hands. As I had many times before, I regretted not having had the courage in high school to audition to be a Madrigal myself. And was proud, thinking about my own young daughters and how I taught them to start auditioning for theatre and dance parts early, to never be afraid to go after what they want and to believe in themselves in a way I never had.
We stayed on the risers through a reading, then sang “Alleluia.” When we were finished, the congregation was once again moved to applaud. We sat down.
Mr. Brown’s nephew Kevin read the Gospel with the familiar words “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and singing the Rutter Requiem came back to me, with the flute and the timpani and harp which accompanied us, and those same words. “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me… shall never die.” I was wiping my own tears then.
The Meditation by Reverend Spicer was very nice, and a smaller group sang “Sing Me To Heaven,” which Mr. Brown had chosen for both his parents’ funerals. Then it was nearly over and time for the Hallelujah Chorus. Michelle, from the congregation (I keep wanting to say “audience”), posted a video of it later and wrote “The Hallelujah Chorus was sung at the end of every Jim Brown Christmas concert. He invited all previous singers that had sung it in years past to join his current choir on stage to sing as one large choir and it was always beautiful. Today’s memorial service ended the same way. Very touching tribute to a wonderful man.”
After the service, I felt the familiar flush and drone of a migraine coming on, so I didn’t stay for the catered luncheon. I later asked Stacey to describe it for me. She said there was a presentation made by Dr. Myers and Linda VanBlaricom to Francis Scruci, current superintendent of BG Schools, of a plaque commemorating Mr. Brown to be hung in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center, inscribed with the lyrics of “Sing Me To Heaven.” Brother and nephew Bob and Kevin Brown shared touching and humorous stories about his life, and were followed by loving tributes from former students Andy Newlove, Molly Ogden, and former colleagues Jan Woodend (German teacher) and Linda Gullufsen. The event ended with the serving of Mr. Brown’s favorite dessert, ice cream, which was enjoyed in the camaraderie of those whose lives he touched.
I’d like to end with the comments of two Madrigals who are friends of mine from high school and could not attend, made on Facebook after viewing J.D. Pooley’s lovely video of the Memorial Choir’s first two pieces, and shared here with their permission.
Jeremy Smith, Class of 92, wrote “I just sang w/ the basses in my living room. God bless you, Jim.”
Chris Hutchinson, Class of 91, said “I was fortunate enough to be part of the Madrigals that sang Breathe on Me Breath of God in the Soviet Union. To hear it again sung by this group as a tribute to Mr. Brown really caught me off guard…in a good way. It sounds amazing and really brings back a lot of incredible memories.”
And finally, some last thoughts from Linda Gullufsen on her way back home to Tennessee with her husband Rex this morning. “The Memorial Choir came together, not for a choral performance, but as 70+ individuals wanting to pay tribute to their teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend. A community of singers was thus created from 15 states, 2 centuries, and a dozen different choral ensembles that spanned 5 decades. We came together for one brief moment to celebrate Jim’s life. I told the singers that this experience would grow sweeter and more precious to them over time, that it would become one of their cherished memories. And I believe it will. In the words of a song from the musical Wicked, ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.’”
Thank you, Mr. Brown.
“I look back on Venus, look back on Mars / And I burn with the fire / Of ten million stars / And in time, and in time / We will all be stars”
-I Sing The Body Electric