Saturday night, I received what I consider to be the greatest honor I have been awarded in the course of my 51 years on this Earth. A group of 35 men with whom I share a love of four-part a cappella music selected me as the 2012 Coles County Chorus Barbershopper of the Year.
I’ve always thought the term “barbershopper” was kind of dorky, to be honest. It has nothing to do with styling hair. Seriously, there has to be a better term for somebody who has the guts to sing in public with three other guys, with no instruments or other vocalists on your part to cover for missed notes or lack of breath support.
But now, I couldn’t care less. On my desk is a simple briefcase with more than a quarter century’s worth of history permanently engraved into the leather. And I am a bit awed that it’s been entrusted to me for the next 12 months.
There is a wonderful story behind that leather case. It belonged to a gentleman named Les Dawson of Charleston. He was a longtime member of the chorus (see more about Les here). About 12 years ago, at the age of 86, he showed up at the home of the director of the Coles County Chorus, Tom Woodall. He told Tom that he was no longer physically able to continue singing with the chorus, and gave that case, filled with his music, to Tom, so that someone else could continue to sing and share the music Les loved.
Tom held onto that case for 12 years and could never bring himself to open it.
This past October, Les was called home. Tom brought the case to our house and asked if I might be able to say a few words when the chorus sang at the funeral–a request Les made of Tom that day in 2000 when he entrusted Tom with his music. I only met Les once, when the chorus sang at his nursing home last year.
But inspired by the case and the sheet music it held, threads that connected his life to mine across decades and hundreds of miles (for you see, many of those handwritten, Xeroxed charts were also in my collection), I was able to string together a few words before we sang — and I showed the case to the family and the chorus at the service as a symbol of what binds men from all walks of life together in this hobby.
After the funeral, I returned to case to Tom. Unbeknownst to most of us in the chorus, however, Tom had arranged to turn the case into a traveling award of sorts. With the help of Bruce Condill, who apparently knows everyone within 75 miles of Arthur, Illinois, the case was engraved with the names of every Coles County Chorus Barbershopper of the Year since the award was first given in 1975. Henceforth the BOTY has the privilege of using Les Dawson’s briefcase–now the Les Dawson Memorial BOTY Award–to carry his music for a year, until it’s time to hand it to the next in a long line of men whose lives are forever linked by a shared love of this uniquely American style of music.
It is my great honor to be the first recipient of this piece of living history.