Chippewa Herald * July 31, 2006  

Daughter's kidney donation reunites barbershop quartet

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

I blew the pitchpipe and we burst into song. We were all a little surprised -- after a dry spell of almost two years, the "ring" in the chord was back, as plain as day. And from "Bye, Bye Blues" to "Wonderful World," we even remembered the notes and words!

This was in May, when my barbershop quartet, CHIPS, was rehearsing in our church sanctuary during lunch hour. Until that day I didn't realize how much I had missed harmonizing with my friends.

There was a long stretch of time when we took quartet singing for granted. After our first public performance -- delivering Singing Valentines on February 14, 1995 -- we got busy quickly.

We decided early on that we didn't want to get over-committed, since three of us still had young children at home, so we limited our bookings. Still, we were fortunate enough to sing for audiences in Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois, and many towns across Wisconsin.

We also traveled to compete in several contests in the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly known as SPEBSQSA -- The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing In America), scoring as high as tenth place in our Land O' Lakes District (parts of five states and two provinces).

We started slowing down around 2002 when our bass, Rod Bailey of Menomonie, began taking some blood pressure medication that wreaked havoc with his voice.

I remember singing for a convention of veterinarians in Eau Claire, and feeling bad about our performance. I even offered them a refund, but they said they still enjoyed it, and proved it by hiring us to sing for more of their colleagues up in Spooner a couple months later.

(I remember that show well -- their favorite song was "Lion Sleeps Tonight." It's the only time I've been asked to repeat my elephant sound effects in an encore! Those veterinarians have good taste.)

However, we knew something was wrong. Rod's voice became weaker and less predictable as his doctor experimented with types and dosages of medications. The bass sound is the foundation of any vocal quartet, and is particularly important to a cappella barbershop harmony.

Rod tried to resign from the quartet a few times, but we told him we'd just do our best. Meanwhile, the diagnosis came in: his kidneys were failing.

Our last public performances were in September, 2004. We were the Sunday afternoon entertainment at Leinie's Lodge, followed by a "Wednesday Night on the Hill" concert at the Heyde Center for the Arts.

To our relief, we made it through both shows. A couple weeks later we set up a recording session so we could finally create a four-part digital record of all our repertoire songs.

That's when we knew it was over. We got through exactly one song that day before Rod's voice failed him completely. It didn't seem fair -- he was only 62 years old!

That was it. The four of us were never together again for the next 20 months. I did see our lead, Randy Knaack of Menomonie, and our tenor, Jerry O'Brien of Black River Falls, once in a while.

But we never got to harmonize again. Rod continued to get weaker, having to sell his business ("House of Comfort" furniture in Menomonie) and downsizing to an easier-to-manage house.

Fast forward to January 2006. Rod's kidneys were nearly useless now, but he found a willing donor -- his own daughter, Kit! In a surgery at the Mayo Clinic, a process that still amazes me, doctors transplanted one of Kit's kidneys into her father's body.

It took some time for Rod to bounce back from surgery, but recover he did. And he was itchin' to sing.

When we got together in May for the first time, we were surprised at the sound. We rehearsed again a couple weeks later, and it was even better!

We blazed right through each one of our 30 songs, and had much more fun than we expected. Then we realized -- it wasn't just that we hadn't sung at all for two years. It's that we now sounded better than we had in FOUR years, since Rod first started going downhill!

We had our first post-transplant public performance in June, singing the National Anthem at the Twins vs. Cubs game at the Metrodome, along with 200 other barbershop singers down on the field. When we sang special requests near the food booths, over the loud din of concession noise, I knew that Rod's voice was as strong as ever.

What's next? I'm not sure yet -- but I do know that we love being able to sing again! We're going to start locally: our first area performance will be at Leinie's Lodge on Sunday, August 13, then we'll be at the Heyde Center on Wednesday, September 6. We'd love to see some of you there!

It's fitting that our first two local gigs will be the same as our last two, almost two years ago.

But now, every time we do some four-part harmonizing, we'll be forever grateful to Rod's daughter, Kit.

CHIPS -- Close Harmony Is Pretty Swell!


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(EDITOR'S NOTE: After the publication date of this column, the CHIPS quartet learned that they had earned a berth in the semifinals of the Minnesota State Fair Talent Contest. If you're at the fair on Thursday, August 31, 2006, come cheer them on at the main bandshell at 6:00 p.m.!)

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