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Lipke-led North High Alumni Choir disbands
Carl Lipke tried to end the North High Alumni Choir quietly.
The choir had just finished its spring concert, and wasn’t yet gearing up for the holiday shows. The group’s leaders were discussing how it should disband, agreeing that costs were too high and some of the singers could no longer stand for an entire performance.
The revered director suggested a discreet exit, without bows or encores.
“I said, ‘Let’s leave it like that, without hurting anyone,’” recalled Lipke, 84, who has been directing choirs for 60 years. “These were students who are now friends. They’re family. How do you say to them, ‘It’s over. We’re done’?”
He tried to avoid the emotional grand finale, but the choir’s board outvoted him.
The singers, many of whom sang under Lipke’s direction at the North St. Paul school as far back as the 1950s, wanted closure on the group’s 20 years of music-making. For themselves and their fans, they wanted to perform together one last time.
“Ending the choir is kind of like a death in the family,” said Louise Smallidge, who started singing with Lipke in 1954 as an eighth-grader. “Everyone needs to think about that and grieve over that. People that have been our supporters and have been our audience for 20 years, they need to know we’re going to be done.”
The 40-some choir members presented their final holiday concerts in December at the First Evangelical Church in White Bear Lake. They said final farewells in mid-January at their last potluck — the last time they’d meet on a Monday, their usual rehearsal night.
“They have become my family,” Smallidge said. “I’m an only child and I have two kids and four grandchildren, but my choir is also my family.”
How it all started
Lipke taught in North St. Paul for 39 years. He took an early retirement deal in 1993, and tried to slip out of his role without much pomp and circumstance.
But he couldn’t escape it completely.
More than 60 of his former students got together to perform at his retirement party in January of 1994. The choir wanted to keep singing and asked Lipke to direct it.
“That (was) a no-brainer,” Lipke said. “We had such a good time throughout my tenure. It’s one of those golden opportunities.”
Lipke said that the choir demanded more and more rehearsals as the years went by. The North High Alumni Choir most recently met every Monday night, and sometimes more frequently for special rehearsals, and offered concerts in the spring and at Christmas.
A revered leader
Lipke directed the 3M Music Makers for 25 years, and still directs a church choir. Among many regional and state awards and titles, a national music association recognized him for his contributions to music education, making him the first Minnesotan to receive the Citation Award as the National Outstanding Music Educator of the Year.
To his students, he is known to appear stern, demanding more than they thought they could accomplish. More than an exacting teacher, he’s been a guiding light and a friend and can be a real “sweetie” sometimes, as one singer put it.
Smallidge, who was an assistant director of the alumni choir, has known Lipke almost as long as he’s been directing.
“He has these sharp blues eyes,” she said. “In high school, he had this laser gaze. If you were looked at with that laser gaze, you knew you better correct what you’re doing or disappear off the face of the earth.”
She said Lipke’s manner of directing, the expressions on his face and his expectations haven’t changed.
“You still feel like you’re in high school,” Smallidge said. “It’s wonderful, because when you get to be 73, you don’t feel that way very often. I consider it an honor and a privilege to have spent that much of my life singing with him.”
Smallidge said he’s a perfectionist with “a hard shell and a soft heart” and “a hug and a handshake that will not quit.”
His high standards made them better singers, says Gary Olson, who sang in Lipke’s choir in eighth grade.
“He always asked more of us than we thought we could do,” said Olson, nearly 72. “Because we liked him and trusted him, we all kind of rose to a different level.
“He wouldn’t settle for less.”
One of the younger members, 57-year-old Laura Hawkins, says Lipke’s motivational lectures and high goals helped spur her to success in a very different field from music. Having surpassed her own expectations in choir helped push her to go to college, and then get a master’s degree of business administration in finance.
Lipke stayed true to form as he addressed the choir at its last concert. “May you always strive for perfection. Remember, don’t be satisfied with mediocrity or anything but giving and doing your best.”
“He was an inspiration, even though I don’t think he wants to admit he was,” Hawkins said. “He was determined, but yet he was still a real person. He cared for everybody. I think that’s why people kept going back. He cared for us and we cared for him.”
Time to say goodbye
The choir became a close-knit family bound by a love for making music.
They went on choir trips in high school to places as farflung as Germany, and some members in recent years continued to travel hours just to take part in the alumni choir.
Olson said he enjoyed the “powerful emotion” that went along with dozens of voices coming together.
“I really enjoy choral singing,” he said. “There was kind of both the social aspect and the performance aspect … We were able to make some very fine music.”
He said he’s sad “not to be together with folks,” but also acknowledges his own physical limitations that make it difficult to perform.
The group’s final concerts in early December were filled with what Lipke had hoped to avoid: “a lot of tears” and “a lot of hurt hearts.”
He reluctantly delivered a speech at the choir’s final concert, saying he’d rather stick to having his back to the audience.
He spent a lot of time thanking people, especially his wife, Jean, who worked alongside him coordinating concerts and musicals at North and was his “pillar of support.” He choked up after he told the crowd how much he appreciates her, and the audience met the emotion with applause. He bid his choir “adieu,” and then audience members rose to their feet, clapping and cheering.
Stopping at 20 years felt right, but that didn’t make it any less hard for many of the singers to let it go.
Crying, many of them struggled to perform their final rendition of “Peace, Peace,” a holiday song that’s layered with “Silent Night.” They sang it every Christmas. This time, as always, they held candles to dimly light the sanctuary.
Even about a month later at the farewell party, Olson said he heard a lot of people saying, “‘I told myself I’m not going to cry tonight.’”
Hawkins had to pause when she talked about Lipke’s last speech, having to say goodbye, and how they’re all going to fill their Monday nights from now on.
“Now I’m getting all teared up again,” she said. “It was just a nice group of people. It’s going to be hard.”
Lipke spoke of his singers’ dedication, which made ending the choir all the more emotional.
“If I said, ‘Let’s do it some more,’ they’d be right back to doing it,” Lipke said.
And they would.
“None of us wanted to quit unless Carl wanted to quit,” Smallidge said.
The remaining proceeds from the North High Alumni Choir is expected to fund a new scholarship for North High students: The Carl H. Lipke Vocal Music Scholarship. The scholarship, which will go to seniors pursuing vocal or music education at a four-year college, will be under the management of the 622 Education Foundation.