Celebrating a European tour, 50 years later

Washburn Choralers commemorate 1969 trip across Northern Europe

Washburn Choralers
Joe Hinz, Nancy Connors and Jeff Schmitz (left to right) video chat with a classmate during a Sept. 12 reunion of the “Washburn Choralers” choir. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Cheryl Preisler recalled singing the piece “Alleluia” in a Norwegian church with great acoustics — a performance that left half of her Washburn High School choirmates in tears.

Jeff Schmitz remembered breaking into “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Finnish youth hostel after hearing the radio broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Greg Taylor recalled having his first beer — and being told on by one of his classmates.

Preisler, Schmitz and Taylor were among the several dozen members of the “Washburn Choralers” choir who gathered Sept. 12 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a 24-day tour of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In attendance was their director, Bill Lydell, now 88, and his wife, Margaret.

Choir members recalled the surrealness of being close to the Russian border during the height of the Cold War and of celebrating the American moon landing in the middle of the night.

The trip came at a time when student choirs did not tour as often as they do today, choir member Lynn Martin said. She and others said they were proud to represent the U.S. and were impressed Lydell had supervised nearly 90 students with just a handful of chaperones.

“It was [50] years ago, and it’s like yesterday, [both] the problems and the good things,” Lydell said. “The good things outweighed the bad things by a ton.”

Washburn Choralers

‘We all grew up’

According to Lydell, the trip originated from a performance his choir had given in Evanston, Illinois. He said a member of the Finnish Arts Council had asked him to bring the choir to the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival, held in a 15th-century Finnish castle.

Washburn’s was the first American student choir ever invited to the festival, according to a March 1969 article in The Minneapolis Star.

Lydell said the choir received free transportation across northern Europe, courtesy of the Finnish government. He said his favorite part of the trip was the moments after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, when his students sang the national anthem near the flagpole outside their hostel. “That was very touching to think that the kids were that patriotic,” he said.

The choir departed the U.S. on July 4, 1969, and spent three days in Norway and two in Stockholm before heading to the opera festival in Savonlinna. They spent 10 days in the town, during which time Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, and another eight in other areas of  Europe, before returning to the U.S. on July 28.

Schmitz, who also had just graduated Washburn, said he’d never been on an airplane before the trip. He and classmate Joe Hinz recalled playing volleyball with Finns and how Finns were confused by an American football.

Martin said her dad gave her the choice between going on the trip or getting braces. She said the group ran out of water at one point in Finland, and she recalled the Finns once serving them cornflakes for dinner.

Bill Lydell
Former Washburn choir director Bill Lydell said his favorite part of the 1969 European tour was when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

‘Connect my soul to the notes’

At the Sept. 12 reunion, choir members thanked Bill and Margaret Lydell, noting how a handful of them have made careers out of music since high school.

Taylor said Lydell, who was his homeroom teacher, always made him and his choirmates feel like professionals.

“He’d make us control our breath, our diaphragm,” Taylor said. “He’d actually do it himself and make you understand what he was talking about.”

Ginger Commodore, now a professional vocalist who tours internationally with her jazz quintet, said she “owes where I am today” to Lydell.

“I learned [in his classes] how to connect my soul to the notes on the piece of paper,” she said. “That’s invaluable.”