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Column: Local composers weren’t inclined to tell of what they wrote

Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run "Isn't That Something" columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and...

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared March 18, 2006.

WORTHINGTON - Last week this column talked of the Edstrom Brothers and the Hal Leonard music publishing enterprise at Winona, as well as Blanche Tice and her music publishing company at Sioux City.

This brought a question: “Were there ever composers right around here?”

I know of two. I think there have been more.

We have to go back a long way. Fifty years.

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Gerry Niemeyer was - is - a Worthington High School legend. Niemeyer was the band man, director of the WHS Trojan band, director of the Worthington City Band. A horn player.

Niemeyer made a handsome figure - he walked tall beside his marching band in a white uniform, white service cap, gold braid trim. Worthington treasured Gerry Niemeyer.

In that same time, Thad Parr still was teaching at Worthington Junior College. Parr was a pioneer among JC instructors and an older man - perhaps 25 years older than Niemeyer. Parr was another legend. Round, steel-rimmed glasses and white hair cut in a Heinie. Worthington loved him and chuckled about him. Parr was not a man troubled by Alzheimer’s disease.

He was only a fabled absent-minded professor, known to drive his Mercury to morning classes and walk home without it.

Parr was preoccupied with themes from history and political science, which he taught. Very incidentally, he led what there was of a JC music department. Parr organized a pep band: “Come on you Bluejays, get out and fight - get out and fight for dear old Worthington.”

Niemeyer and Parr became friends. They intrigued each other. One day Parr made a revelation - Niemeyer made a discovery. In the bench of his piano at his home on Miller Street, Thad Parr had “quite a number” of original compositions, mostly marches.

We are coming on a double tragedy.

Niemeyer prevailed on Parr to let him have a single march - let him adapt one march for the WHS band. Parr had named the march, “Men of Wisconsin,” for his home state. They changed the name to “Men of Minnesota.”

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“It’s really quite good,” Niemeyer judged, and his band played “Men of Minnesota,” a number of times. Niemeyer was confident he could prevail on Parr to let more of the compositions come to light.

Then - 50 years gone by - a tragedy that jolted all of Worthington. Gerry Niemeyer and his wife were killed in a crash while they were driving to their family homes at Fairmont.

Quite incidentally - something no one thought of at the time - nothing was seen again of Thad Parr’s compositions. After Parr died, Mrs. Parr moved to the Shore Apartments on Fourth Avenue. When Mrs. Parr died, there was an alert: check her belongings and treasures for Thad’s music.

Nothing was found.

Thad Parr was one local composer.

The other I knew of was Alice Honken Pontow.

Alice came to Worthington from Illinois. “I had relatives here,” she said in an interview. She had gone to Francis Shimer College at Mount Carroll, Ill. She gave lessons for organ, piano and guitar. At one time, Alice had 80 students at Fulda, Reading, Round Lake, Rushmore and Worthington. She made her rounds, town to town.

Alice told me one day how she came to compose a hymn:

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“I woke up one morning and the whole first verse and chorus just seemed to be there,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about it.

“It was as though there was a voice saying, ‘Now you go and write the second and third verses.’ “So I worked on it all day. Whenever I had time. By the end of the day it was finished.” Alice played it for me in her upstairs apartment on Fifth Avenue the day before she moved to The Atrium. “Holy Spirit fill me now, Touch me, heal me, bless somehow. Cleanse and keep me free from sin, Make me pure and whole again ...” She sang quietly as she played. She went on to the chorus: “Holy Spirit fill me now, Humbly at thy feet I bow, Let thy healing power begin. Holy Spirit enter in.” You know: I cannot judge music. I thought Alice’s hymn was very fine. It deserved wider recognition. To my knowledge, “Holy Spirit Fill Me Now” disappeared, just as Parr’s compositions disappeared.

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