By Vance Nichols (Class of ’77)
Singing as a member of the Kearny High School A Cappella Choir in the 1970s was a privilege. A rare privilege. To some extent, we knew it then, at least as much as any teenager could. But looking back now, what an honor it truly was…and what a difference it would make in many of our lives.
Montgomery Jr. High School in Linda Vista and Taft Jr. High School in Mission Village/Serra Mesa both taught students in grades 7-9, and both fed their graduates into Kearny. My first knowledge of the KHS A Cappella Choir came while I was singing in Taft’s boys’ choir for three years for music teacher and choral director, Miss Virginia Winn. She was an excellent director and voice teacher, instructing us how to read music, how to sight-read, how to work hard, and how to love singing—even as junior high boys. As I recall, it was during our ninth grade year that Mr. Z came to our class one day—resplendent in his choir blazer with the Kearny choir patch—to recruit as many male singers as he could. After hearing Miss Winn talk about the choir so often before and then meeting and hearing Mr. Z, I desperately wanted to be in the KHS A Cappella Choir. So when my first class schedule as an incoming tenth grader at Kearny in the fall of 1974 included both A Cappella Choir and Vocal Ensemble, I was ecstatic!
Choir Director Mr. E. Richard Zaloudek was by now a living legend in Southern California as a vocal music educator. Although his physical stamina may not have been as keen as when he had been a younger man, we never knew it and we really couldn’t tell. His passion for music—and for us as a choir to sing with excellence and equal passion—was compelling and inspiring, yes, even for us as teenagers. And when Mr. Z needed support to occasionally reign in some of the more-squirrely first-year singers in the chairs or on the risers, the choir officers made their presence known. I can honestly say I was at times in awe of them and Mr. Z.
There was a tremendous sense of pride and responsibility singing in the choir. Its traditions and unique culture that had developed for decades were ingrained in us from the moment we first stepped into the choir room. At every venue and event—whether it was singing The Messiah (who else but Mr. Z would lead high school vocalists to successfully sing such challenging music!), sounding like angels as we sang Ave Maria in the Mercy Hospital Chapel, caroling and presenting Christmas performances in public and for various civic groups, presenting the annual Spring musical, or performing for adjudicators at spring choral festivals—we were reminded that we represented the best in high school vocal music.
We believed it.
And we sang like it.
In the spring of 1975, after performing our Spring musical, HMS Pinafore, the choir traveled to Alhambra for that year’s Southern California choral festival. While our choir members stayed at the homes of families of the host choir, an A Cappella Choir member and I were invited to stay with Mr. Z at the home of the hosting choir director, who was a friend of Mr. Z’s. I remember thinking it was an honor to be asked to stay there (they probably just ran out of host homes!), but also remember telling myself not to do anything that might embarrass Mr. Z (ha, or my mother!). On the way home from the festival we went to Magic Mountain, where I won a huge stuffed owl—which embarrassingly took up its own seat on the bus—to take home to my girlfriend.
In my junior year, which would be Mr. Z’s last before retiring, Kearny and the choir suffered a tragedy that would fuse the choir together not only for the remainder of the school year, but to this very day. One of our own, Karen Huff, 16, a choir member who was also on the Komets swimming team, had a seizure and heart failure during warmups in the pool before a KHS home swim meet, and was taken by ambulance to Sharp Hospital where she was pronounced dead. We were shocked, stunned, and crushed. For some of us, Karen was the first person we knew in our lives who had passed away. She was a genuinely nice girl, a sweet young lady, a person of deep faith. She lived just three blocks from my house, and I would often give her a ride to school. It was now that the authentic value and depth of what it meant—and still means—to be a member of the A Cappella Choir flooded our hearts and poured out torrents of sorrow…and music that welled-up from our souls. That was the moment many of us grew up. As a choir, we sang through the tears at Karen’s open-casket memorial service at the little church that was just a two-minute walk from her Serra Mesa home. Then we reprised our vocal offering as we joined hands together in a large circle around her gravesite at El Camino Memorial Park and sang our choir’s special song, that song, our choir’s alma mater, our parting prayer to God for Karen, for her family—and for us—Pax Dei.
It was not the first time Kearny’s A Cappella Choir had lost one of its own. Nor was it the first time the choir had joined hands in a circle and sung heavenward in a sacred farewell at a classmate. But it was our time.
As we continued to deal with our grief, we also continued to sing, all in the growing shadow of Mr. Z’s impending retirement. In addition to an emotional Spring musical compilation honoring Mr. Z—drawn from parts of the choir’s past musicals—it was also America’s bicentennial, and the KHS A Cappella Choir was a major contributor of voices to the San Diego City School’s All-City Choir. As part of the city’s celebratory events leading up to July 4, 1976, we learned and sang together in a concert at UCSD’s Mandeville Center, including narration provided by KFMB-TV’s long-time weatherman, Doug Oliver. At four times during the exceptionally-long performance, there were very noticeable “thuds” on the wooden floor behind and beneath the risers: It was the sound of four choir members passing out and falling off the risers, including at least one of our own from Kearny. (As far as I know, no one was seriously injured.)
As Mr. Z’s final tearful day as our legendary director approached and came (which was the first time I’d ever heard him say he was “tired and ready for retirement”), there was also the annual matter of electing the choir officers for the next year. In the culture of the A Cappella Choir, this was a big deal. With Mr. Z leaving the helm, this was an ever bigger deal. At times, the election seemed as much a negotiation and a dance as it did an election, as the outgoing officers had a voice—as it had for decades—in shaping how that process went, with the self-assigned responsibility of ensuring that the culture and success of the choir would be faithfully sustained.
So when that election was over and the gold stole of the vice presidency was placed over my head (a ritual shared by such previous choir VPs as Tony Award winner, Cleavon Little, KHS Class of 1957), the discussion and immediate concern of newly-chosen choir president Lynn Wyckoff (Hood) and the rest of the officers was who would be our next director. How could we help guarantee that the traditions and unique culture of the choir continued? What power would we really have over a hiring decision that we as high school students had no part in? The angst was real. We were very concerned.
But as it turned out, we had no need for concern. None. That’s because, quite possibly, the absolutely best individual to take over the choir and the vocal music department had been chosen. And the man was not only a Kearny alumnus, but an alumnus of the A Cappella Choir itself.
Mr. Robert Graeff.
Not only did Mr. Graeff value and personally understand the choir, and not only did he bring musical acumen to the position, but he also brought a new-found energy—as a teacher in his mid-20s—to the directorship, to the A Cappella Choir, and to the entire vocal music program. We were not only relieved and thankful, but as time went on, we became more and more excited.
Mr. Graeff honored the legacy of Mr. Z, building on Mr. Z’s decades of success to elevate us to the next level. He would joke and laugh with us, as he built appropriate and engaging teacher-student relationships, but he would also get very, very serious about the quality of our singing, of our musicianship. When it came time to rehearse, the time for nonsense was over, and it was time to get down to business. As he led us, we heard the rising-excellence of our own collective voices, and we believed in what he was doing. I remember moments when we sang a piece in rehearsal and then sat for a moment in silent awe. Wow. We just did that. Then the silence would be shattered by excited chatter and smiles and the facial expressions of students who had just performed at yet another new level. We kept setting new standards as Mr. Graeff taught and led us masterfully, wise beyond his years. As a gifted teacher and leader, he honored the work done by Mr. Z and honored us in the new work he was leading us to achieve. Because we had all bought into Mr. Graeff’s musical and visionary direction, there was tremendous positive peer pressure to practice hard, sing well, improve our musicianship, and pay attention to Mr. Graeff and even the smallest and most intricate details of the music. True to tradition, the officers helped the choir self-regulate.
Also true to tradition, the performing of sacred music based on biblical passages was preserved, as well as music that was challenging to sing, both of which were hallmarks of the A Cappella Choir. Preserved as well were the choir’s traditions. True, the public singing of The Messiah had been retired with Mr. Z. But the choir’s culture continued unabated. We understood we were only as strong as our weakest choir member, so we worked to collectively encourage one another and lift up one another and even help one another on certain notes or measures or movements, believing we were all in this together. It was a lesson and truth we would need for life after high school, from personal difficulties to 9/11 to the pandemic.
In Mr. Graeff’s pivotal first year, Christmas was busy as always; we still performed a Spring musical (Brigadoon); and he introduced a number of new wrinkles and innovations, including lunchtime mini-concerts in the choir room and the recording of an album. No matter what we attempted, we were always urged—and taught—to give our very best effort.
Yes, there were still the typical shenanigans, especially revolving around the choir officers. For example, on my birthday, I was “kidnapped” from home by the other choir officers and members (with full parental permission and help), dressed in drag by about a dozen male choir members, taken to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor in Fashion Valley, then blindfolded and tied to the front doorknob of Mr. Graeff’s parent’s home in Serra Mesa (with whom he still lived at the time), where they doorbell-ditched me. The elder Mr. Graeff answered and—after laughing—helped me get untied. The younger Mr. Graeff never woke up and didn’t know what had happened until morning! Of course, these and other “extracurricular activities” were all designed to actually draw us all closer together. And they did.
But perhaps nothing united us more that year than the Southern California Vocal Association choral festival in Glendale. An adjudicator-rated event, we performed a challenging three-song set. At the end of our last piece, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, we received a standing ovation in the packed auditorium, a rare experience in the world of high school choral festivals. It was the closest thing to perfection I’d ever experienced up to that time in my life, especially with a group of other people. We were all talking excitedly on the bus waiting for Mr. Graeff to board with the adjudicator results; we knew something extraordinary had just happened, we knew we had just done something as a choir beyond anything we’d ever done before. It seemed like we waited for Mr. Graeff forever. When he finally stepped onto the bus, he paused. We stopped breathing. Then he gave us the results: We had earned a rating of “Double Superior!” Perfection. We went crazy! As Mr. Graeff later shared: “Finally, I will never forget two of the best comments we ever received on an adjudication tape. One of our judges recorded this during this song (Rest): ‘I had to set down my pencil just so I could listen’ and ‘The singing on the paradise passage was…well, paradisiacal.’ That’s when you know…” Perfection. Led by Mr. Graeff, we had achieved and set a new standard for high school vocal performance, a festival rating the Kearny A Cappella Choir would again earn each of the next four years. Our choir’s 1977 performance at the festival in Glendale was one of the most unforgettable moments of high school, and honestly, of my life. If ever a choir was in the zone, we were that evening. I still get chills. And I still thank God for that amazing memory, for that feeling.
Graduation came soon after we returned home from the festival, but we rode that wave of excitement and satisfaction and accomplishment right through commencement. And while it was farewell for me and my fellow seniors, our time together would not be forgotten. Many friendships, including with Mr. Graeff (later Dr. Graeff) after high school graduation, continued and have lasted a lifetime.
In retrospect and reflection—and after so much of life has since been lived—when I now listen to the recordings of our choir from the 1970s I cannot help but be suddenly transported back in time. For a few moments at least, I allow myself to be overwhelmed by the emotions, because being in the A Cappella Choir was transformative. Some of our us were athletes, some of us were academics, some of us were popular, some of us were none of the above. But for three years all of us were privileged to share an experience that would not be forgotten and that would build into us the desire for excellence, the feeling of accomplishing something great together as a group, and the never-pushed but constant foundations of the truths of God that we so often sung about in the sacred music we performed. The experience was priceless.
And if I could, I would relive a few of those moments once more, especially one night of perfection in Glendale…