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Mr. Music


A salute to Dudley Birder as he takes his Summer Music Theatre bow after 56 years.

Watching Dudley Birder (Music Theatre) conduct a choral ensemble is like watching a kid explore a candy store. Pure delight radiates from the 90-year-old music man’s smile and continues through his expressive hands – hands that have drawn beautiful music out from the community since 1958.

Over the years, he has served as a St. Norbert College music professor and led performing ensembles that include the Swinging Knights, the Chamber Singers and Summer Music Theatre. His name is synonymous with America Sings!, the All Saints Day Concert and the Holiday Pops Concert.

Birder will step away from his role as artistic director of the campus summer music theatre program at the end of this 56th season, but will continue to direct the eponymous Dudley Birder Chorale at St. Norbert College. He founded the ensemble in 1974. It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of someone who has found joy through a passion-fueled career. “I love it,” Birder says simply. “I’m just very lucky. I never have not wanted to go to rehearsal.”

The path to St. Norbert College
Birder grew up in a musical family in St. Paul, Minn., and took piano lessons as a child. After serving in the Navy (“I was a nose-gunner in a two-man bomber,” he explains as casually as he describes conducting a choir) he studied at the University of Notre Dame, where his father was teaching. He switched from studying music to sociology briefly, but as a newlywed he decided to follow the advice of his wife, Mary: “You belong in music.”

Birder’s music career took him to churches in Green Bay, South Bend, Ind., and Nova Scotia. After completing his doctoral studies, he knew what he wanted: to teach music at a small Catholic college in a small town.

St. Norbert College had an opening for him in 1958. It turned out to be such a perfect fit that Birder turned down an offer from Notre Dame a few years later, even though the university’s campus is located in his wife’s hometown. “St. Norbert was just so right for me,” says Birder. “I was so well-supported.”

It’s one thing to love your job, but another to continue it into your 10th decade of life. Although Birder retired from academic teaching in 1993, he has continued leading Summer Music Theatre and the chorale. “I love the sound, the performance. It’s like learning a language,” Birder explains. “I grew up with it, I still speak it. A day never goes by that I’m not involved with music.”

Sallie Petty, a professionally trained performer who has been in many of Birder’s summer music theatre shows, now teaches at the Birder Studio of Performing Arts. She says Birder’s musical gifts are like none she’s seen elsewhere. “It was incredible how he got all of these very strong voices – many of whom had trained to be soloists – to somehow all become a unit,” says Petty of her experience in a production of “Les Miserables.” “That is his gift.”

Birder is quick to deflect the spotlight back to the performers. “As long as I’m with them, it makes me very happy,” he says. “I’m nothing without them.”

Lifelong impact
President Tom Kunkel has called Birder a legend. “With the possible exception of Abbot Pennings, no single individual has done more to advance the name, identity, reputation and prestige of St. Norbert College than Dudley Birder,” Kunkel said at the 90th-birthday press conference earlier this year at which Birder announced his music-theatre retirement.

Longtime performer Parker Drew has his own take: “Of all of my wonderful teachers, Dudley Birder has had the most profound impact on my career. The single greatest lesson has been professionalism on and off the stage. I also consider him to be a great friend, and almost a second father.”

From Birder’s perspective, it’s a great gift knowing he has helped bring music so deeply into people’s lives and hearts. “The musical experience – they carry it forever,” he says. “It has become a part of their life. You’ll never lose it.”

So says a man who certainly knows. 

July 1, 2017