Chippewa Herald * March 5, 2003

Delivering "Singing Valentines" more fun than receiving them

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

Last week I had the undeniable privilege of delivering messages of love to people's sweethearts all over Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire. (It's a tough job, but someone has to do it!) And it's all the more fun when those messages are carried on the vehicle of old-fashioned four-part vocal harmony.

I have enjoyed singing in barbershop quartets ever since 1978, when I was an 18-year-old. (More on that in another column!) But it wasn't until 1989, while living in Oregon, that I first tried delivering "Singing Valentines." That's when I discovered that the best audience in the world is someone who is being serenaded on behalf of his or her sweetheart!

This is the tenth year that my current quartet, CHIPS, has been delivering Singing Valentines in the Chippewa Valley. February 14 is the best day of the year for us, a day we would never miss.

We start preparing for the big day in January. In the early years we had to advertise more, but now, due to all the repeat business and referrals, we basically send out one email to our quartet mailing list, and put up a few posters in local businesses, and that's enough to fill our schedule.

After we order roses and buy film, candy, and cards, we're all set to start taking orders in early February. My lovely wife, Beth, enjoys taking the orders and coordinating the schedule. Most of the buyers are men, so before signing the cards, she gets to coach them through the process of how to show affection to their wives in writing.

My quartet is a little spread out -- our bass and lead, Rod Bailey and Randy Knaack, live in Menomonie, while tenor Jerry O'Brien comes all the way from Black River Falls. That means we need to meet early on Valentines Day -- well before 8:00 a.m. -- to get everything ready. This year we met at Keith and Terri Tompkins' house in Eau Claire, since our morning engagements were in that city, and since Keith served as our morning chauffeur and photographer again.

This year we had the usual mix of destinations: classrooms, banks, offices, factories, medical clinics, retail stores. It's fun to see the look of surprise on the faces of the first people who see us walk in, decked out in our tuxedos and red bow ties. The receptionists and principals quickly become our allies as they lead us in tracking down our prey.

Once we identify the victim, we close in for the kill by singing "Hello, hello, hello, hello," with each member of the quartet joining on a different note to build a chord. That loud introduction usually manages to disrupt any legitimate work going on in that office, and within seconds there will be a few dozen coworkers (and sometimes customers) crowding around to see what's going on.

We sit the beneficiary down in a chair, and serenade her with an old love song such as "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" or "Heart of My Heart, I Love You," in blissful four-part a cappella barbershop harmony. During the song, we present her with a long-stemmed rose and a card. Some of the recipients chuckle, some get misty-eyed, and some are downright crying by the time we finish that first song.

We pose for a quick Polaroid and a web-bound digital photo, then launch into a second song, conditions permitting. The choice for the second song depends on the circumstances -- it could be another tender love song, or it could be something perky and fun, such as "Darkness on the Delta," "Chatanooga Shoe Shine Boy," or "Lion Sleeps Tonight."

In any case, our job is typically done in an elapsed time of only a few minutes, but we leave the workplace in a shambles and everyone in a good mood.

We do a lot of "freebie" appearances, whenever our schedule permits. We often drop in on schools, retirement homes, relatives of the quartet, and our favorite, high school choirs. (People who sing appreciate singing the most!) For the tenth year in a row, we also made a stop at WWIB Radio (103.7 FM) to sing live on the air.

We ended our day with a celebration dinner with our wives and a few friends at the new Timber Lodge Steak House in Eau Claire. In addition to enjoying some delicious steaks, we got to sing a few more songs for customers and staff. (If you're in a quartet, you simply can't be together and dressed and warmed up, and not sing just a few more songs!) ;-)

My quartet has performed over the years in beautiful auditoriums for many audiences across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois. But there is nothing more fulfilling than singing right in your own town for an audience of a dozen, when you know that there is real heartfelt meaning behind the words you're singing.

Note: If you'd like to see photos of our Singing Valentines from the past four years, surf over to our web page:

You can reach Tom at

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