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Friesland Men’s Chorus anticipates ‘farewell’ season

April 17, 2019

FRIESLAND — The bass, baritone and tenor voices of the Friesland Community Men’s Chorus are set to fade away this fall, unless somebody steps up to take the place of the retiring director.

Director Harriet Hoffman of rural Randolph said she plans to step down from the director’s post, which is why she’s calling this the “farewell season,” after 37 years of existence.

“So far we don’t have anybody who wants to take over,” Hoffman said. “So we don’t know what’s going to happen yet.”

According to Hoffman, there is at least one singer in the 38-member ensemble who is qualified to direct — her grandson, Russell Hoffman of Cambria.

He handles the sound system, and plays a number of different instruments, including harmonica, guitar and drums. But according to Harriet Hoffman, he is too busy trying to farm and raise a family.

Hoffman will celebrate her 80th birthday during the farewell season, and just thinks it’s time to step away from the podium — as hard as she knows it will be.

“I know I’m going to miss it,” she said. “It was a hard decision to make, but I wanted to end on a good note.”

So, it looks as though a tradition, which grew out of the inspiration of a plane crash survivor, will come to an end sometime around September, when the chorus is scheduled to perform in Dave and Linda Hughes’ barn near Cambria.

The organization’s website, fcmchorus.org, tells the origin story like this:

“It all started as a tragic plane crash for a parishioner in 1981. It was then that the Holy Spirit was with a pastor and the parishioner, as they rode to visit hospitals together. They talked about younger days of singing gospel music with men from all walks of life. It was then that the establishment of the chorus started taking place. Men were invited who loved the Lord and were willing to sing about it.”

According to Hoffman, the “parishioner” was Byron Kok of Fox Lake, who was in a small plane with his wife and two other people. All but Kok perished when the plane crashed near Waupun.

During Kok’s recuperation, his visits with the Rev. Ron Van Der Werff, pastor of the First Reformed Church in Friesland, included reminiscences of all-male-voice choirs singing hymns of praise to God.

The group’s repertoire of hymns and other spiritual songs can be summed up by the theme of their farewell season: “Jesus, the Source of My Song.”

The group offers various arrangements of hymns, Southern gospel music and the occasional barbershop harmony.

The history of First Reformed Church declares, “Music has always been a special part of worship in Friesland,” and includes a brief account of a piano being donated to the church in 1954 by a “Men’s Chorus program.”

But the chorus that formed in 1982 includes men from 11 different Christian denominations, from 29 different congregations and from numerous communities, including but not limited to Friesland, Beaver Dam, Portage, Ripon, Randolph, Kingston, Waunakee and North Fond du Lac.

The original director was Paul Gilbert, who also the Cambria-Friesland High School choral director. Hoffman said she took over after four or five years when Gilbert moved on.

Hoffman and her husband, bass singer Ron Hoffman, are among the charter members of the Friesland Community Men’s Chorus who still participate in the group. She originally was an accompanist. Other active charter members include baritones Bernie Oosertwyk and Andy Douma, both of Randolph, and bass singer Ken Smits of Cambria.

The women in the chorus’ group photo on the website are piano accompanists: Clarice Koopmans of Randolph, Jean Vandezande of Waupun and Corrine Hiller of West Bend.

Harriet Hoffman said the group has never had women singing, although many church choirs fill their tenor sections partly with low-voiced female singers.

For each season, the group starts Monday-night rehearsals in September in the First Reformed Church basement, travels to various performances — many in churches — from March through June. They typically take a hiatus in June and July, then resume from August through September.

Whether the concert scheduled at the Hughes barn is actually the last performance remains to be seen, Hoffman said — because another performance might be booked, and because someone might step forward to direct, and keep the tradition going.