Chippewa Herald * February 13, 2008 Visitor
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Singing Valentines are sweeter after four-year absence

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

"Let me call you sweetheart, I'm in love with you..."

That familiar old melody has been a big part of my Februaries for most of my adult life. I have been delivering Singing Valentines in barbershop quartets since my twenties, first in Portland, Oregon, and now here in the Chippewa Valley of Western Wisconsin.

But our last Singing Valentines was in 2004. It came to a sad stop in 2005, when Rod Bailey, the bass in my current quartet, could no longer sing due to his illness. In 2006, he was recovering from his kidney transplant.

We thought we were all set for Valentine's Day 2007, but he inexplicably took a turn for the worse, and we had to cancel.

As we prepared for this year's schedule, we were a little nervous. But Rod had been feeling great for months now, so we went full steam ahead.

There was a lot of pent-up demand! Our schedule filled pretty quickly, organized by our mastermind and chauffeur, my lovely wife Beth.

For the first time ever, we skipped Eau Claire during the day, in order to give us more time to sing in Chippewa Falls in the morning and Menomonie in the afternoon.

Despite our full schedule, we snuck in a few freebies here and there. We were relieved to get an order for a teacher at Chi-Hi, which allowed us to stop in and sing for my daughter in her class, as well as for the concert choir. (High school choirs are a thrill to sing to -- singers appreciate singing!)

On the way to Menomonie, we made a diversion to Colfax to sing for a friend of my oldest son's. Unfortunately, their afternoon classes were canceled due to their Winter Carnival, so we couldn't sing for her in her choir class.

We had to settle with surprising her in the cafeteria in front of the entire school. Oh, darn.

Our first Valentine's Day in Menomonie kept us hopping from one business to another, not to mention more schools and homes and apartments.

It's interesting to see different vignettes of American working life all in one day -- from a jewelry design shop with soft jazz music playing, to the Walmart distribution center with boxes clanking along on roller coasters, to a car body shop that makes you wish you didn't have to inhale in order to sing.

The variety reminds me of Studs Terkel's book "Working" that I had to read in college. Spending five minutes in each of dozens of workplaces is like job shadowing for the hyperactive.

Our favorite stop in Menomonie was singing for the mother of Randy Knaack, our lead singer. She had recently been in the hospital, and at 89, you never know if this is her last Valentine's Day.

The lyrics of the song we sang for her took special meaning: "Heart of My Heart, I love you; life would be naught without you..."

While singing for the office ladies at Menomonie High School, the school choir director walked in and wanted to hire us to sing for his wife at home. He was fine with our only remaining time slot around supper time, so we added that to our schedule.

When we got to his house, his wife wasn't the only one surprised -- so were we! His wife's parents were there, and they turned out to be Tom and Jan Drehmel of Chippewa Falls! Tom, a guy with impeccable taste, has hired the CHIPS quartet several times over the years to sing for Jan when she taught at Parkview, so it was fun to see them again, even if it was a little out of context.

We had some Eau Claire customers who wouldn't take "No" for an answer, so we decided that we could loop back there in the early evening, after singing for the Menomonie School Board dinner. (As a member of the board, Randy had to validate his excuse for not attending that night.)

Our most important stop of the day was for the mother of Jerry O'Brien, our tenor. If the doctors are right, this will be her last Valentine's Day.

Marge has been our biggest fan during the 13 years we've sung together. Every time she sees us, she makes us sing "Shenandoah" and closes her eyes as if she were enveloped in the greatest sound she could imagine. It was never so hard to get through Shenandoah as it was that time.

We finished what may be our last private concert with our favorite groupie by singing "Wonderful World." Very fitting, since we had sung to her great-grandchildren earlier in the day at Halmstad. Music speaks at a deeper level than mere words.

We delivered one more in downtown Chippewa Falls, for LouAnne Wischnewski in front of her dance students. Then it was finally time to eat, and Bridgewaters offered steak and "IMMEDIATE SEATING." And of course we had to sing for a few more tables. (It's tough for four guys in identical tuxes to remain inconspicuous.)

We ended up singing from 8:00 a.m. until almost 11:00 p.m., and Rod was at full strength the entire day!

"And I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

ADDENDUM:The very next day after this article appeared in the paper, Marge O'Brien drew her last breath. Her funeral is Friday, February 29 at St. Mary's in Altoona. We will really miss our quartet "mom." :'-(
See photos of our Singing Valentines:

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