The Choir Room bell

by Bob Graeff, Class of 1971

For decades, the bell pictured here sat on the blonde Hamilton piano in the choir room at Kearny Junior/Senior High located on the current Montgomery campus and later in Room 801 of the “new” campus of Kearny Senior High School on Wellington Way.  Purchased by teacher Richard Zaloudek shortly after beginning his 31 years of teaching at Kearny, the bell was frequently used by Mr. Z as a way to start class and to gain student attention.  Similar to a standard bell found commonly on check-in counters at motels or local businesses, this instructional aid was just one of the many instructional tools used by Mr. Z through the years.  When his hand tapped the bell and students heard its very distinctive ring, they knew that class was about to start.  Or if students became particularly noisy or lost their focus during rehearsal, the director’s hand would again come down on the bell – signaling students to silence their talking and get back on task.  Legend has it that the dent on one side of the bell came as a result of a rare loss of temper by Mr. Z when, during a particularly bad day on the old Montgomery campus, he hurled it against a classroom wall, angered that his choir was not as focused as he preferred.  Seeing that Mr. Z personally revealed this incident to students years later at the new campus, it is very likely a true story!  After three decades of service, the bell was finally retired in spring 1976 along with Mr. Z – but it remains in good hands and is currently in the care of a very responsible former choir member for safekeeping.  Who knows?  Perhaps at the next all-decades Choir Reunion, the bell will make another appearance – and we can all remember its cheerful sound, those grand rehearsals, and our wonderful Mr. Z.  

Choir Memories, 1978-81

by Barbara Connally, Class of 1981

Hey look me over, lend me an ear!  I had never heard that song before the day I sang it as my “try out” for choir….it was also the first time I had walked into the Choir room….Senior pictures of every A Cappella Choir President in the history of Kearny High School lined the periphery of the room. The room buzzed as current seniors, my big brother Tom included, chatted with excitement about the new school year, and listened as newbies were trying out for Mr. Graeff as he played the piano. My best friends’ sister helped me pick out the song from “Wildcat”, a 1960 Broadway musical starring Lucille Ball. That song changed my life. All these Seniors were gathered around me, a Sophomore, encouraging me, and helping me learn a tune, that a few minutes later I sang solo, as Mr Graeff accompanied me. I’d never sung solo in front of an audience before, but all my new friends’ hard work paid off and I was placed in Girls Choir. YES!  

After a semester of Girls’ Choir, learning to read music and sing my “Alto part”, I was allowed to move up to A Cappella… this was the only class in my whole life where my brother and I were together. I still remember taking my seat there in the Alto section, just a few chairs away from the Tenors, where Tom sat, and winked at me. Then we began: Ahhh-ahhh-ahhhh-ahhhh-ahhhh…..warm ups. That class was more than an hour of my day! The students, the atmosphere, the sense of being part of something so grand, with a history staring down at us daily as we learned four part harmonies..those faces prodding us to put our hearts into each note! We were all friends. We were there for a purpose- to blend our voices together and make magic. Of course we were teenagers, and periodically Mr Graeff had to ring the bell to get our attention. But, this was a place where we were all equal…it was a sanctuary of acceptance, support, and friendship. I woke up daily, excited to go to school and be there, in the flurry of that place where we sang, danced, laughed, dreamed…where our lives were formed. I chose what college to go to in that room, with those people.  

A Cappella became my life. Of course I was involved in other activities in High School: Badminton, Softball, Journalism / Newspaper, among others, but as soon as I was able to try out for the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, I did. At the end of Sophomore year I ran for A Cappella Choir Treasurer, and at the end of Junior year I ran for President. My Senior picture added to that long illustrious line! My best friend and I had both wanted to try out for Cheerleading and Choir President, but we didn’t want to compete against each other, so her mother had us draw straws, and that is how my fate was determined!  Myra became a cheerleader and I was donned with the prestigious gold drape that only the A Cappella Officers wore when in our robes. We wore those robes proudly. I still feel the tingle of anticipation as we waited to mount the risers where we would perform …. “Festival” was where we competed against other Choirs from all over California. Having fundraised ( bowl-a-thon, candle sales, candy bar sales, car washes, etc ) to pay our way there, and having ridden on buses for hours to get there; We sang in four part harmony, having practiced more intently for those performances than anything else I had ever before done. Over a hundred young people with a common goal: make Mr Graeff, Mr “Z”, our parents and all those who had preceded us overwhelmingly proud. At other performances, our Spring Concert, our Christmas Concert, or any time we performed there was always the invitation to have A Cappella alumni join us for that final singing of “Pax Dei”. I recall being so humbled as people would rise from their seats, or walk out of a crowd to come join us and begin, “ Remain, oh peace of God, Remain…..”

Many a life lesson was learned under the umbrella of A Cappella Choir. Memories made: Spring performances of “Hello Dolly”, “Oklahoma” and “Tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein” with full choreography, lines memorized, costumes and singing like we were on Broadway! Many of those songs I sang to my four children, and now to my five grandchildren. There was Christmas caroling at Fashion Valley Mall and Mercy Hospital…to this day when I sing carols I can hear Mr. Graeff saying “step…step”…between verses to keep us all in time. My senior year, in an effort to bring in some new students to the choir programs we did lunch time mini-concerts outside of the cafeteria: “Grease” and a “Beach Boys” medley are fondly recalled—of course we wore costumes and danced too! Also, that year we made a float for the homecoming parade that involved a refrigerator box, a lot of chicken wire, paper napkins, multiple cans of spray paint and a borrowed truck that I had to learn how to double-clutch to drive. 

I count myself blessed to have been set up for success, having had such an impactful experience during those years—I have sung “Hey look me over, lend me an ear…..” many times through my life as a Mother, Marine Corps wife, coach, teacher, flight attendant, volunteer, Grandmother, among other titles. A Cappella Choir provided me the opportunity to learn to lead others, show responsibility, build lifelong friendships, and sing all the while.

It was a formative few years, and to this day, when asked about anything pertaining to my high school experience, A Cappella Choir is the first thing to come to mind. Mr Graeff poured his heart and soul into that program- into each and every student that entered his classroom. I can still see him pounding the piano keys, sweat dripping from his brow as he willed us to learn our parts…..good news, Bob Graeff, your efforts were not in vain. I made sure that all of my children learned to play the piano, to read music, to appreciate all kinds of music, to sing along through life. Now my granddaughter plays the piano, too, taught by her Dad. Music is the undercurrent of our lives, sometimes we sing, sometimes we dance, and we always remember. 

Changing of the Guard, 1976-81

by Bob Graeff, former KHS Choir Director

As a student member of the KHS A Cappella Choir from 1968-71, I remember dreaming of a day in the future when I might be able to succeed Mr. Zaloudek as the vocal music teacher at Kearny.  In those years, Mr. Z frequently talked about his desire to see an alumnus take over for him at the end of his career and I carried that dream into college with me.  In my final year of schooling at San Francisco State University, I began reaching out to Mr. Z to see if he could help me achieve our mutual dream.  After applying for the job in 1976, the call finally came through in early August that I was hired by San Diego City Schools as a classroom teacher and would be assigned to Kearny High.  A dream had come true!

My first day on the job nearly 45 years ago is still a very fresh memory.  I still remember looking nervously into the faces of those curious, teenage choir members in three separate vocal groups.  I remember the speeches I made that day, the student leadership replacing the pennies in the ceiling

according to choir tradition and spelling out 1977, and the directing of my first song on that first day during Period 6 with A Cappella Choir – “Pax Dei.”  I also remember being scared to death!  Was I really prepared for this assignment?  Would Z’s former students and Kearny’s teachers and administrators accept me as the new director about to step into those gigantic shoes of the longtime legend?  With Mr. Z’s name plastered all over the Choir Room and thirty-one pictures of former choir presidents and previous choirs posted around the room (including groups in which I had sung as a student member), there was really no choice but to dig in and succeed!

For the next five years, I tried very hard to preserve and support many of the traditions I had known so well, to discard a few outdated rituals, and to add some new pieces, as well.  We kept the very rich tradition of utilizing student leadership for choir organization (with the exception of Student Director), we continued singing “Pax Dei” as our choral alma mater, and we continued our saturation of the community with winter holiday caroling and related performances.  Visits to Mission Valley Center, Fashion Valley Center, women’s clubs, the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion, Mercy Hospital, and winter evening concerts remained seasonal highlights.  Spring Concerts featuring portions of selected Broadway shows continued being an annual highlight, including Brigadoon (1977), Paint Your Wagon (1978), Hello Dolly! (1979), Annie Get Your Gun (1980), and A Tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein (1981).  

At the same time, it was clear that the high school I had attended just five years earlier was changing.  With new high schools being built to the north in Mira Mesa, Poway, and Rancho Bernardo, families were moving northward and our student body was beginning to decline in numbers.  With the end of the war in Southeast Asia, Linda Vista was designated as a residential center for Asian refugees, changing the demographics of our school community.  Due to other social pressures and the 1977 Carlin case ordering districtwide integration, voluntary ethnic enrollment programs were being introduced across San Diego and new neighborhoods were now sending students to Kearny from outside our local residential community.  Clearly, “the times they were a-changing” and the choral program needed to change with it in order to serve the changing student population.  

The A Cappella Choir continued through those years and performed as brilliantly as ever.  In my second year, we actually expanded the group to 110 voices – blending choir robes from an older set with a much newer robe collection to outfit all our singers.  The Girls Choir evolved for a while into a foundational group to support the larger concert choir, but later gave way to a 50-voice Gospel Choir.  This new group proved to be a huge hit with the African American students on campus and was afforded performance opportunities on campus as well as in local City-sponsored music festivals.  The mixed Ensemble quickly transformed itself into a Vocal Jazz Ensemble in my second year on campus and moved to an all-female jazz group in my fourth and fifth years, proving to be very popular on and off campus.  Singing mostly jazz tunes from the 1940s through the 1970s, this group discarded the tuxedoes and gowns from yesteryear and wore more casual, non-traditional outfits, often accompanied by piano, drums, and string bass.  Songs such as “In the Mood,” “Java Jive,” and “Makin’ Whoopee” became Jazz Ensemble favorites.

Another switch was that we focused much more on performing on the school campus than in years past.  Introducing mini-concerts, various choral groups would hold 25-minute programs throughout the school year inside the Choir Room during lunchtime, inviting students to come and listen.  We also took the performance risers outside our room and set them up in the lunch area with microphones and loudspeakers – taking our music directly to the student body.  These performances would include more contemporary music and pop solos to stir interest among the student listeners.  We also brought back two very popular small groups (the Boys Barbershop Quartet and their female counterparts, the Four Bs) which could sing on and off campus at the drop of a hat.  Combining our energies with the Drama Department, I worked closely with teacher Jack Wynans in those years to produce Supper Theatre programs every spring where students would sing, dance, and act in a small cabaret-style setting in the small gym – creating a Vegas-like atmosphere of dinner with a show.  These productions gave 20-30 students wonderful opportunities each year that were not often available in the typical choral or drama classroom.  Some of those show themes were Happy Days (1977), Send in the Clowns (1978), and New York, New York (1979).

Still, the mainstay of the vocal program during my five years at Kearny remained the A Cappella Choir.  Those days were very busy with a heavy activity calendar run largely by the student officers and included fall “kidnapping” picnics, fundraisers, float building for Homecoming parades, after-concert parties at local pizza restaurants, and seasonal parties at the homes of agreeable choir parents.  In addition to the many seasonal productions, concerts, and social activities, the annual highlight for all our groups had to be the spring festival season.  In the Kearny tradition, we would compete with local high schools in city-sponsored festivals and travel to other locations in Orange and Los Angeles Counties to take on some perennial powerhouse schools.  Our musical selections were always a cappella (without accompaniment) and only utilized music in the classic tradition.  We sang in English, Latin, German, and French and often were considered the most outstanding group in attendance.  Some especially noteworthy selections were “At the Round Earth’s Imagine Corners” (Spencer), “She Walks in Beauty” (Fotlz), and “Exultate Justi in Domino” (Viadana).  Choir students from this era will recall that the A Cappella Choir never faltered – earning “Double Superior” ratings from the adjudicators for five consecutive years in festivals sponsored by the Southern California Vocal Association.  Coupled with overnight travel and next-day trips to Disneyland, these experiences created extraordinary moments in the lives of KHS choir students that can never be forgotten.

Along the way, there were other memorable moments, as well.  The 1977-78 Choir provided the music for a massive Veterans Day program at the Organ Pavilion, sharing the stage with local dignitaries and the Marine Corps Band.  The 1979-80 Choir participated in the school district’s annual All-City Choir program, including a March concert directed by guest conductor Jester Hairston, a son of former slaves and well-known for his Negro spiritual compositions.  During their winter holiday season, the 1980-81 Choir and Ensemble were featured for a full thirty minutes on a television program entitled “KFMB Looks at Learning.”  

As Kearny’s student enrollment continued to decline, however, the school needed to reduce the size of its teaching staff and I was transferred to Hoover High across town in July 1981.  KHS Band Director, Barney Norman, was then assigned to lead both the vocal and the instrumental programs.  Looking back, those five years at Kearny made an indelible impression on me about the critical importance of keeping the arts strong in our public schools.  In the vocal music classroom, students learn to improve their individual singing abilities and to sing within a group of other people.  While also learning to read music, they gain lifetime skills that they can treasure for the rest of their lives.  They also learn to experience and to articulate the concept of “beauty” – where else do we teach that?  Perhaps more importantly, choral students learn self-confidence, stage deportment, presence, teamwork, sacrifice, cooperation, and the importance of being positive, even when conditions might dictate otherwise.  As a product of Kearny High’s choral program under the leadership of Mr. Z in the late 60s and as the director of the program for five years in the late 70s, I will always be thankful for these extraordinary experiences provided to me by Kearny High and will remain hopeful that forward-thinking school leaders will have the insight to initiate and support similar programs in the future.  Forever, “Go Komets!”

A Cappella Choir memories – 1967-1970

by Steve Grubbs, Class of 1970

Looking back on my 3 years in Acapella choir 51 years later, I have more impressions than specific, detailed memories.  I do remember the first day I walked into the choir room in my sophomore year.  It was 1967 and I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet.  I felt a little intimidated as I looked around at all the (tall…old) people in the room and all the pictures on the walls.  At the time, there were photographs all around the room of every choir president since Mr. Z began directing the choir 23 years prior.  It seemed a very prestigious role and position of honor to be choir president.  At that point I never dreamed I would fill that role in my senior year.

Fast forward to 1969, the beginning of Mr. Z’s 25th year as choir director.  This was the Silver Anniversary choir which was a very special year for Mr. Z.   I was fortunate enough to be elected to be choir president for this special year.  I remember Mr. Z meeting privately with me to tell me about how significant the year was to him.  He told me about some of the special things he had planned and how excited he was for the year to unfold.  Mr. Z also told me about his feelings in the aftermath of Ann Bakich’s tragic accidental death, and his desire to dedicate special concerts to Ann’s memory.  I felt like I had been enlisted for a sacred responsibility.

I have fond memories of the choir’s performance of the Messiah at St Paul’s Cathedral downtown.  It was a magical experience singing the powerful “Messiah” with the acoustics at the church, the full house, and sharing the experience with great friends in the choir.  It was a special honor to lead the choir in the processional, holding the silver anniversary candle inscribed to the memory of Ann Marie Bakich.    

There were so many events and gatherings where the choir performed that provided opportunities for service, fun, and just being together with people you love while doing what you love to do.   I especially enjoyed singing the Christmas music at the malls and facilities (which was right up there with playing spin the bottle in the back office following an “Important” meeting).  

Another memory I have is the ongoing debate I had with Jackie (Smith) Knowlton, my girlfriend for most of my high school years.  The choir leadership team was divided into “major” officers and “minor” officers.  She was the student director, a “minor” officer, and I was president, a “major” officer.  That’s just the way the system was set up, I didn’t make the rules.  Alright, so 51 years have passed and I’m ready to concede – she was the major officer and I was the minor officer.  There, I said it… I’m ready to move on.  

Furthermore, it was pretty incredible the way everybody in leadership and the choir members at large pulled together to make Z’s 25th silver anniversary choir an unforgettable experience.  Making our album and singing Silent Night and Pax Dei, the way Z directed and with the emotion he evoked, still lingers when I think of those times.

When I left Kearny, music continued to be a big part of my life.  Through 27 years of pastoral ministry and 14 years as a Hospice Chaplain, I continued to sing, play, and write.  Last year after I retired, my wife Wendy and I moved to Nashville so that I could pursue my hobby of songwriting in music city.  Taking some time to reflect back on the meaningful musical experiences and relationships I had in high school has been fun for me.  I was blessed to be able to spend 3 years in such an incredible choir, with such a distinctive and delightful director, and all the many others who shared the joy of the music.  Sing on!