600 help Dudley Birder celebrate his 80th birthday
This article, by Warren Gerds, ran in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on April 1, the day after a surprise party for
Dudley Birder (Music Theatre). It is reproduced here with kind permission.
Six hundred “closest friends” of Dudley Birder threw a surprise birthday bash for the well-known music man Saturday night at St. Norbert College.
Walking onto the Walter Theatre stage, Birder’s mouth fell open as the crowd cheered and “Happy Birthday” was performed on tape by the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra.
“Dudley, on behalf of 600 of your closest friends, happy 80th birthday,” said emcee Fred L. Schmidt. Birder’s lips could be read as he spoke to his wife, Mary: “Come on. I can’t believe it.”
“It was totally amazing that we knew about it so long and that we could really keep a secret,” Rita Kilmer, a former Birder student and music teacher, said afterward.
Among keepers of the secret, the event was code named “Formula 80.”
A vast majority of people in the crowd were students of Birder or performed or helped produce shows of the Chamber Singers, Swinging Knights, Music Theatre and Dudley Birder Chorale, among other groups.
Forty-four past students from around the country and present chorale members sang the premiere of “When Life is Lived,” with the local native creators connected to Birder and each other. The text is by Ralph Ehlinger and music by his New York City-based sister, Mary Ehlinger, who conducted.
Birder and Mary Ehlinger shared hugs and tears at the conclusion of the work that was commissioned by past students.
Also announced was a commission by the chorale. Set to “Psalm 96,” the work for the chorale and orchestra is by one of Birder’s favorite nationally known composers, Randol Bass. It is to premiere at the chorale’s next All Saints Day concert with Bass conducting. Barbara Vitchus, chorale president, presented Birder with two framed pages of the score, signed by Bass.
Mary Birder recounted the “excitement and exhaustion” of their years of marriage and rattled off numerous blooper names of her husband. One was from an article about a sparkplug basketball player, “Cruddy Birder.”
“We thank God for the gift of Dudley and Mary Birder,” said William Hynes, president of St. Norbert College.
A granddaughter, Mari Bakken, sang “What I Did for Love.”
The Rev. Rowland De Peaux, representing the Norbertine order and a charter member of the Chamber Singers, described singing in the Birder group in 1960 as “like walking through a magical curtain onto a yellow brick road.”
Carol and Bob Bush, who a few years ago mounted a $1-million endowment fund for the chorale, praised Birder with end-to-end titles of popular songs.
“What’s next?” Birder was asked at the reception in Sensenbrenner Memorial Union.
“Death,” he said, then laughed. “But not yet. I’m not in a hurry.”
Addressing the audience, he said, “I’ll be the first to admit that I really enjoy the attention.”
His wife said during the program and Birder repeated a thought himself: “I have never once gotten up and not wanted to go to work.”
Also brought up during the evening were overtures to Birder from universities - Notre Dame (his alma mater) and Arizona.
Following his big night, Birder conducted the chorale in a Palm Sunday ecumenical concert at the Weidner Center.
By the numbers
- 80 - Age of Dudley Birder, as of March 23
- 49 - Years associated with St. Norbert College
- 46 - Seasons of Music Theatre shows he’s produced
- 33 - Years he’s led the 150-voice Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College
- 57 - Years married to his wife, Mary
- 6 - Birder children, who have 13 children