Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series looking back at Kenai Central High School’s European choir trips under the direction of Renee Henderson. Next week’s story will focus on memories from the trips.
By Clark Fair
Renee Henderson wasn’t accustomed to teachers not getting what they wanted when their requests were in the best interests of their students. That’s not how her father, a rancher in rural South Dakota and the president of the local school board, had told her it was supposed to be.
“His philosophy was: You just work hard, do the best job you can, and then you go ask the people in charge,” recalled Henderson. “And they would rarely turn the teachers down because they weren’t asking anything exorbitant. They were asking legitimate things that they needed or that would make a difference. I didn’t remember them ever not being granted. So that was what I grew up hearing.”
Consequently, her May 1973 meeting with Dr. Jack Hayward, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent, became the source of some consternation for her — and the wellspring of new action.
Henderson, the choir director at Kenai Central High School since 1971, went to Hayward because she had an idea, inspired by the talent level of her musical charges. She wanted to take her choir on a tour of Europe, like the one she had enjoyed when she was a music major at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and she was seeking official permission for her idea before she began serious, detailed planning.
In the meeting, Henderson, who was 28 at the time, got directly to the point and made her request.
“He said, ‘How many days do you want to be gone?’ ‘Well, I’d like to miss 11 or 12 school days.’ ‘No.’”
He suggested that she try trimming the time down to one week.
Henderson told the superintendent that she was concerned about all the time lost in such lengthy traveling, but she could see that he was not willing to budge, so she made a secondary request.
“ I said, ‘Well, if I can get it down to that, could I take a nurse?’ ‘Absolutely no. There’s no reason to take a nurse.’ And I said, ‘Is there someone higher than you that I can go see?’
“And the look on his face! I just wish that I could have had a picture of his face because he was just totally blown away. But he told me no, and then he said, ‘Well, you could go to the school board.’ And I said, ‘OK, how do I set that up?’ And he’s still just looking at me aghast. He said, ‘Well, it would have to be through my secretary.’ And I said, ‘OK. Thank you very much. I’ll do that.’”
Henderson, as people who know her will attest, is not one to idly contemplate action. At the next meeting of the school board, she was on the agenda.
Dr. Hayward was in attendance to see how she would fare, and Henderson said he told her beforehand that the board always sided with him. He practically guaranteed that she would not get her way.
But Henderson, although “terrified,” was well-prepared. And the board responded by approving her general idea for the tour.
“And then they said, ‘Is there anything else?’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, there are two more things.’ First of all, I happened to glance at Dr. Hayward when they approved it, and he gave me a look that was a killer. And then I thought, ‘Well, I’m up here. I might as well ask the other two questions.’
“So I said, ‘I was wondering if I could take the school nurse from Sears Elementary.’ ‘Well, why do you want a nurse?’ I said, ‘I don’t really know why. It’s just a feeling that I have that they would be a very important person. I think if the students get really homesick, there would be a very calming effect. And if they get sick, then we wouldn’t have to go find a doctor. And we would carry along some medicine.’ And they just thought that was great, so they said, ‘That’s a great idea.’
“And I looked at him (Hayward), and he gives me this look that’s like, ‘I can’t believe you’re getting these things.’ Then I said, ‘I wanted to talk to you about the number of days.’ And they’re looking at me, and Hayward is just glaring at me. He is not a happy man at this point. I wasn’t doing it to go against him. I just thought it was a great idea. So I said, ‘I wanted to talk to you about the number of days that we’d miss. You really kind of lose at least two days, and then you feel horrible the first day you’re there, anyhow, because you’re so exhausted from the time change. And so I was wondering if we could be excused for 11 days.’
“And there was an audible gasp. And one of them said, ‘What would be your justification for that?’ I said, ‘Well, probably there isn’t any, but would it be OK to miss as many as, say, the basketball team misses in a season?’ And they looked at each other, and they said, ‘Well, sure.’
“‘Well, the last three years it’s been 13.’ Hayward’s face just drained. He was looking at me: ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ ‘Well sure, 11’ll be fine,’ they said.”
As it turned out, Hayward’s anger quickly dissipated. But Henderson wasted little time wondering about having burned any bridges. Within the next two weeks, she applied for the 1975 Rome International Choral Festival, and she sent along a reel-to-reel audio tape of her choir. And then she rehearsed and rehearsed, and awaited a reply.
Many months later, a plain white envelope arrived for her. Inside was an acceptance letter to the festival.
“I expected not to be accepted,” she said, although she had still planned to tour Europe, regardless. Acceptance to the festival, she said, was an astonishing bonus.
Without telling her choir about the festival letter, she called for a meeting of choir members and their parents who were interested in participating in a European tour.
“I announced it, and you could have heard the response at Carr’s,” she said. “They were blown away. There wasn’t a person in the room that was anticipating anything like that. Oh my gosh! You could just feel the electricity. It was an incredible moment.”
Once all the fundraising was done and the arrangements were made, realized the people in that room that day, the European tour was going to become a reality, and this choir from a rural, “culturally isolated” high school in Alaska would be taking a trans-Atlantic flight and singing in the Vatican.
One of the choir members, Herman Moonin, was from Port Graham and had never been farther north than Kenai. On the choir’s return trip, he would fly at an altitude of 30,000 feet straight over the North Pole.
The tour was to be the first of 13 such overseas adventures for choirs from KCHS, and in looking at this string of successful international ventures, it is ironic to consider that Henderson initially did not want to come to Kenai — and that when she did, she came to teach music at Sears Elementary, had no real intention to stay very long, and certainly had no interest in directing the choir at the high school.
She had been teaching music in Hutchinson, Minn., when Dale Sandahl, then principal of Sears, called in 1971 to offer her a job. Henderson had just signed a new contract to continue working in Hutchinson, but the prospect of Alaska intrigued her, so she told Sandahl that she would do some research on Kenai and call him back.
All she could find was a 1950 Census of Alaska, which stated that Kenai had only 321 residents.
“So I called him back and told him, ‘No thank you. I’m not interested at all in going to a tiny little village.’ He said, ‘No, no, no. It’s grown. It’s grown a lot. There’s oil here … .’”
By 1960, the population of Kenai had more than doubled, and by 1971, Kenai had more than 2,500 residents. Sears Elementary had 550 students, largely due to the existence of the Air Force base at nearby Wildwood.
Once Sandahl clarified the situation, Henderson was hooked.
“You know,” she told him, “I think I’ll take it for one year.”
She broke her contract with Hutchinson and moved north.
Shortly after she began at Sears — pushing her piano on dollies from classroom to classroom because the school had no music room — the music teacher at KCHS became too ill to teach. In October, she was informed that she would be using her prep period and lunch break each day to travel to the high school and be the band and choir director.
“That was quite a shock,” she said. “And I told my new superintendent, ‘No, I wasn’t.’ And he said, ‘You will, or you won’t have any job.’ That gets your attention.”
For about the next 10 years, that’s how it was, except that the high school hired a regular band director so Henderson could focus just on choir.
She still remembers her very first day at KCHS.
“They combined an elite, select choir of 17 with a music-appreciation class of 24 kids who had signed up to listen to rock ’n’ roll 45 records. So I walked in with kids screaming at each other. ‘You can’t sing with us! We are superior!’ And the others were saying, ‘We don’t want to sing! We didn’t sign up to sing! Nobody can make us sing!’
“I sat down on the piano bench, and I didn’t say a word for the entire hour.”
But the next day she was back, and on that day she began the process of fashioning a choir that in March 1975 would board a plane bound for Europe and the Rome International Choral Festival.