By Ron La Point
This story was previously written in the book: Oshkosh: The Way We Were. It is included here to honor Fred Leist on his 98th birthday.
With an uneasiness that often comes when speaking before a gathering of former teachers, I sent Mr. Fred Leist a letter asking if he would be interested in writing about his years as the Oshkosh High School choir director for my upcoming book. The “dragging of the feet” had everything to do with the dread of being ignored or worse yet, turned down by the man who directed the A Cappella Choir during what many consider its golden years.
Three days later to my surprise, I received a large packet in the mail. Inside this large envelope was a book entitled The Choir. It contained the story of the Oshkosh High School Choir during the years Mr. Leist was the school’s music director. An enclosed note read in part that I could excerpt any of the information that would help me write this story.
The task of doing so and doing it credibly is what is now staring me in the face.
Fred Leist lounged with stretched legs on a metal chair as memories of days past flooded him in the barren choral room at Oshkosh West High School. “I had a good time, wonderful kids,” he said, his voice soft, his khaki colored coat strapped around his frail shoulders.
Sixty-seven years ago he built what many now consider the golden years of Oshkosh High School music.
“Standing in front of 100 kids at a time in a concert was just a wonderful feeling. I could forget everything else and just conduct it and have a ball,” he said. “I miss that.”
Fred Leist relived those moments during West High Schools holiday choral concert when he led a choir of current students and alumni in one of his signature songs: “The Lord bless You and Keep You.” Afterwards he became the first-ever inductee to the school’s Music Wall of Fame.
It was in 1942 when Fred Leist came to Oshkosh with his wife Dorothy and their one year old son Freddie, to be the Oshkosh High School Band Director. On the very first day of school he was presented with a band comprised of 12 students. At the end of the day Mr. Leist contacted Mr. Harold Arentsen, head of the music department, and told him that he was resigning. Coming from Algoma, Wisconsin and having two bands of over 50 members in each and a choir of more than 60, the disappointment was too much to accept.
Mr. Arentsen rushed over to the Leist home immediately after school where they discussed the situation. Although it took some time Mr. Arensen talked Mr. Leist into giving the school a chance. By the end of the year there was a band of almost 50 students which he had developed.
Mr. Leist returned to the music program in 1947 from duty with the U. S. Navy to begin a string of musicals that continue to this day. That year Mr. Leist produced “The Mikado,” the first of many annual operettas. Incidentally the leading tenor role that first year was played by Homer Fratt, an Oshkosh High School faculty member, the first and only time an operetta role was filled by a non-student.
There were 23 operettas presented before he retired.
I had the privilege of performing in three of them including “Sweethearts” in my sophomore year – “Give me some men who are stout-hearted men who will fight for the right they adore. Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men and I will soon give you ten thousand more, ooooooooh!” After more than 60 years I can still sing that song with that clipped staccato sound that Mr. Leist wanted or more precisely demanded.
That brings me to this point. There was never a question of who was in charge in that classroom located in the basement of the old Beach building. We knew when the bell rang that business was at hand. He worked hard and expected – no demanded – that his singers work hard too. He expected full cooperation and insisted that we keep our commitment to the program. There were a few who had to make some gut-wrenching choices.
Tom “Teamer” Hansen relates this story:
“I played basketball for the Junior Varsity during my sophomore year and it so happened that I had a scheduling conflict this one evening – whether to play basketball or attend our final practice for our annual Christmas Program. I decided to play basketball mainly because I led the team in scoring the previous game with 16 points. Unfortunately for me, Harold Schumerth was our basketball coach. When I showed up to play he asked why I wasn’t at the Christmas Program’s dress rehearsal (Harold sang in a quartet with Fred and was a willing supporter of Fred’s high school programs). I told him that I thought I should be here for the game. That was enough for coach to sit me on the bench for the entire game. The following day at school I was told to turn in my choir robe. I walked to Mr. Leist’s office, robe in hand, gave it to him and without a word said I left for my next class. I knew it would be futile to ask for another chance.”
From 1947 through 1958 many of the musical performances were held in the Recreation Gym. Walking down the aisle in that gym holding a lit candle and singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and its Latin version still sends shivers down my back.
During my first year in A Cappella we took a spring trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was hot on stage that day with 100 of us cramped together on wobbly rafters all the while hoping that no one fainted. Mr. Leist nervous and a little tense and dripping with sweat before the curtain opened still can be seen when I took back those 60-plus years ago. But after the opening jitters the music seemed to flow without a hitch. It was, I believe, the first out-of-state trip for the choir.
There were other performances later held in Omaha, Detroit, Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, Madison Square Garden in New York City, the New York World’s Fair and trips to European countries.
How good were his choirs?
In 1968 while performing at the St. Norbert’s October Choral Festival, Jack Rudolph of the Appleton Post Crescent stated: “The 115 voice Oshkosh High School A Cappella is, without qualification, the finest high school chorus I have ever heard.”
In a letter dated October 16, 1998 from Milton Buettner, a retired pianist of Penny Farms, Florida: “For the past hour and a quarter I have been listening closely to the CD you sent me and I am glad to be able truthfully to tell you that it is the most beautiful high school choir I have heard in all my 84 years. Many would have said that it is virtually impossible to discipline teenagers until they can sing such a velvet pianissimo, but I have just heard the miracle. The changes of harmonic color were thrilling to hear, as well as the continually true intonation in all the parts.”
But then Mr. Buettner never sat in Mr. Leist’s choral room.
And on January 5, 2002 in the Beaver Dam Citizen, Roger Van Haren wrote: “Fred Leist is a prime example of what a good teacher should be. Marilyn (his wife and former student and intern for Fred Leist) has often spoken of his firmness – tough love, I suppose –and his insistence upon perfection. He was not a buddy to his students, he was a taskmaster. He worked hard himself and he demanded that his singers also work hard.”
Dean William Rudoy of the class of 1967 cites one of his experiences with the choir and Mr. Leist: “We could see our breath in the cold night air as we walked through the parking lot of the church. Once inside the warm sanctuary we took off our coats and gloves and trotted up the stairs to the choir loft which was meant to contain only about half our number so we pressed close together. We chattered and laughed and complained about the cramped space. Then Mr. Leist appeared and with his look and deep voice we fell silent, ready to get to work recording our Christmas album, ‘Measure 25 Silent Night.’ We opened our scores.
His hand rose. We took a breath and sang from our hearts. We always sang from deep within.”
I was asked by a friend while writing this story why Fred Leist with his nation-wide reputation for excellence would stay in Oshkosh directing high school choirs when he could have gone most anywhere, done most anything. I said I didn’t know, that I never thought along those lines. So I wrote to Mr. Leist and asked him that question. He wrote back and said: “Actually Ron I did just what I wanted to do when I decided to stay in Oshkosh. There were a number of jobs offered to me over the years by people who had heard the choir and I appreciated their interest. However Dorothy and I liked Oshkosh and their fine school system since we arrived here in 1942.”
Thanks to Harold Arentsen and his persistence, Fred and Dorothy Leist made Oshkosh their home.
Fred Leist now lives with his daughter in Poynette, Wisconsin. For those who choose to wish Mr. Leist a happy birthday (November 25) you may write to: Fred Leist, % Sue Wilson, West 6915 King Row, Poynette, WI 53955.
Ron LaPoint is a former high school history teacher who now resides in both Oshkosh and Arizona. Elements of this story can be found in his books, Oshkosh: A South Sider Remembers and Oshkosh: The Way We Were.</p>