Music men: Community pays tribute to WHS Legacies -- Gerald Niemeyer
There is news of sorts along the streets of Worthington every day. A baby is born. Someone has died. Shocking news -- news beyond imagining -- is rare. There was news of this magnitude late on a Friday afternoon in 1961 -- Nov. 7, 1961. Gerry Niemeyer and his wife, Iva, were both dead, killed in a car collision at a rural intersection near Fairmont, which was Niemeyer's boyhood home. The work week was ended, the weekend had begun. The Niemeyers were driving to a gathering of family and friends. Iva had a casserole on the back seat.
The shock was that for 16 years Gerry Niemeyer was Worthington's Music Man. Everyone knew him. Everyone liked him. He was a genial man. When the Worthington High School band marched on Memorial Day, on Turkey Day, The Director marched ahead of them, to the right and near the curbsides, in a distinctive white uniform trimmed with gold braid. At the summer band concerts at Chautauqua Park he stood front and center in the band shell. And -- Niemeyer was a trumpeter -- now and again he would join with a trumpet trio or a trumpet quartet to perform a rousing air.
Memories began to rise like bubbles in a glass of Coke. There was a still-fresh memory of Niemeyer taking his high school band to Chicago as the featured band for a national clinic/convention of bandsmen. There was Niemeyer, always immaculate, always in a sharply-pressed suit, walking along hallways at Worthington High. There was Niemeyer, an eager and gregarious host, joining with friends at his Smith Avenue home after a Wednesday night concert in the park.
Suddenly there was no Niemeyer. This was shocking news. Mrs. Niemeyer, quiet and unfailingly pleasant, was gone as well. Worthington was stunned.
It would be thought such a couple, such a dire event, would never be forgotten. But all this was half-a-century gone by. Those who lived in that time have searing memories, but most of Worthington has no memory of that day. It is necessary now to describe the man and the event and its import.
Niemeyer was tall and broad-shouldered, a commanding presence -- a Leader of the Band presence. He was a man of goodwill; everyone had warm feelings for him. He had been at Worthington for 16 years and, as far as the admiring populace and his band veterans were concerned, he could continue on for another 60 years.
It was not overlooked that he was a man who strived for perfection in his work. He demanded great efforts from his musicians. They responded, year by year. Worthington High School bands, in black uniforms with red trim, had become quite famous. In the style of that era, Niemeyer bands marched in a compact phalanx with carefully rehearsed, straight ranks and files. Their fare was marches, very often Sousa marches.
The story of Niemeyer's life before Worthington was not generally known. (Who knows the life history of the local band director?)
There was some appreciation that he was (nearly) a local man, a son of Fairmont in Martin County, only 60 miles distant.
Gerald H. Niemeyer was the only son in the Carl Niemeyer family. He was born March 13, 1910 -- he was one in that generation of Americans who was too young for military service in World War I and, by an eyelash, too old for conscription in World War II. He came to Worthington the year the war ended, in 1945, at age 35. He earned a bachelor of music degree in 1934 from Dana Institute of Music at Warren, Ohio, in the turmoil of the Great Depression.
That same year -- Oct. 8 -- Gerry and Iva Hehir were married. Iva was a native of Granada, in Martin County, and like her groom, she was a Lutheran and a graduate of Fairmont High School. The two had known each other for some time. They came to have two daughters, Darlene and Jane.
In the year of the fatal crash, Gerry Niemeyer had been voted by his peers as one of the top 10 high school music instructors in America. This was the cap on a heap of distinctions:
He had been president of the Minnesota Music Educators (Band Division). He had been president of the Southwest Division.
An American School Band Directors Association (ASBDA) was created. Niemeyer was a charter member who, later, was elected Minnesota ASBDA president. He also was chairman of Minnesota's annual solo and ensemble high school music contests. He also was active in community affairs; he was a past president of Worthington's Kiwanis Club.
Gerry and Iva both were active in affairs at First Lutheran Church. He was director of the senior choir.
That fateful Friday was undistinguished generally. Temperatures still were moderate. There was no snow. The Niemeyers left Worthington at the end of the school day, the end of the school week. That evening, in uncounted, sometimes hushed conversations all across the community, friends reflected on their loss. There was an oft-repeated reflection: "Well -- he did drive fast."
The Niemeyer funerals were conducted in the gym at Worthington High School. It was clear no church would be large enough to accommodate the throng of mourners. In a tribute written for the popular couple, it was said, "A man is great for what he is and not for what he has done. This man would have been cherished dearly and counted great among us if he had never raised a baton ..." and, "Each fine trait of her husband could be traced to Mrs. Niemeyer ..."
Mourners joined in singing, "Lead on, O King Eternal, The day of march has come ..."