In March, longtime and much beloved Staples High School choral teacher George Weigle turned 90 years old. Yesterday, he died peacefully.
In his long career, Mr. Weigle influenced thousands of students. Barbara Sherburne was one. On his 90th birthday, she offered this tribute. It’s reprinted here, in honor of one of Westport’s most beloved educators.
George grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia. At West Virginia Wesleyan College he spotted a woman from Norwalk, Connecticut named Eleanor, singing in a talent show. He told a friend, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” It was love at first sight.
George graduated in 1950, 2 years before Eleanor. They married on August 21, 1954. After 63 years, their marriage is still going strong.
George studied for a year at Boston University after college. He taught school in West Virginia, then returned and earned his master’s in 1954 from BU. In 1980, West Virginia Wesleyan presented him with an honorary doctorate.
In 1954, George heard about an opening at Bedford Junior High. He got the job, and after 5 years moved on to Staples High School. He taught there until 1988. Eleanor taught at Bedford Elementary School from 1954 until 1961. Some years later, she began private tutoring.
George Weigle in a classic pose. (Photo courtesy of Ken Lahn)
George started the Orphenians in 1960. He named the group after his Orphenian quartet, led by his college music professor. Of course, Orpheus was a legendary Greek musician.
George continued the Candlelight Concert tradition, begun in 1940 by John Ohanian.
George and Eleanor bought a house on Robin Hill Road. They’ve lived there ever since. George told a fellow Westport music teacher — John Hanulik — about a vacant plot next door. The Hanuliks moved there in 1960, and John lived there until he died. Marie, his wife, still lives there. Having 2 incredible music teachers live next door to each other for so long is amazing.
I was a student at Long Lots Junior High, in a music class taught by Mr. Hanulik. One day, Mr. Weigle came to speak to us about Staples. He seemed very stern, and scared me. Mr. Hanulik had an incredible sense of humor. I thought, “Uh oh.” I needn’t have worried.
George Weigle took the Orphenians around the world — to Austria, Romania, Poland, Spain and many other countries. His first trip was to the Virgin Islands (above) in 1966. (Photo courtesy of Jon Gailmor)
When I was applying to colleges, Mr. Weigle suggested West Virginia Wesleyan. That’s where I went. He wrote me freshman year, “Don’t burn the candle at both ends.” I wound up getting mononucleosis. I guess he saw something coming that I didn’t.
George was also choral director at the United Methodist Church, for 43 years (1954 to 1997). I sang at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, just up the hill from the Methodist Church. George invited me to join his adult choir, when I was still in high school. I’d do both, running down the hill to get to the Methodist Church in time. I sang whenever I could under George’s direction. When my mom passed away in 1978, he was part of the quartet that sang at her service.
I’ve known George for a very long time. We communicated regularly all these years. He frequently sent me cassette tapes of Sunday services at the Methodist Church. He always sent a Christmas card, as did John Hanulik. They often arrived on the same day — and occasionally they chose the same card.
George was like a father figure to me. I have a hard time believing he is 90. You can send cards to him at 10 Robin Hill Road. I’m sure he would appreciate hearing from you. He touched so many lives in so many ways.
In 2004, I interviewed the retired choral director for my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. Here are some excerpts:
In 1954 John Ohanian brought me in for an interview. He took me to meet [principal] Norm Flint about an opening at Bedford Junior High. No one told me the kids had driven 3 choral teachers away the previous year, so I took the job.
It was tough. Every morning Eleanor had to push me out the door. Every student had to take general music. My first 9th grade chorus had 50 girls. Gradually it got better. By my 3rd year we had boys singing in the chorus too.
I went to Staples the second year it was open. The only electives the kids were offered were art, music and home ec – not the zillions of courses they have today. John had established the choral program, and I was in the right place at the right time. It was a popular group, and I had the junior highs feeding me. Looking back, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.
The Candlelight Concert is timeless. George Weigle directed these choir members in 1981 — as he did for 39 years.
We gave 4 Candlelight Concerts each year. I’d get called in between performances, and reamed out – maybe I didn’t interpret a piece of music as I should have. Looking back, I realize John was right.
He put me on a path, and guided me. I in turn demanded excellence from my students. I realize now that students understood what excellence was.
The program grew, and so did its reputation. The harder the music, the better they performed – and the more they wanted. I gave them stuff I didn’t think high school kids could do, like John Corigliano’s “L’Invitation au Voyage.” It’s an extended piece, very contemporary, a cappella with duos and solos. Paul McKibbins’ “Psalm 67,” which he wrote and dedicated to me and the Orphenians, was the second most difficult piece.
At the time I did not realize what we were doing, level-wise. Now I wonder how I taught it, and how they memorized it – extended stuff like Handel’s “Coronation Anthems.”
In 1960-61 I started a small group: Orphenians. We had auditions, and selected 24 to 28 singers. We met once a week after school at first, then twice a week. We did lose some of the guys to sports.
From its small beginning, George Weigle’s Orphenians grew enormously. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.
In 1966 we went to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and in 1972 to France, Austria and Italy. We came in second in a choral festival in Italy. If I knew then what I know now, we would have been first. I didn’t recognize shadings of dynamics. From then on, I paid attention to it. We lost to a group from Oklahoma that met five days a week.
In 1975 we went to Romania. That was an adventure! A very poor country, with very friendly people. We had to be careful what we sang.
In 1978 we went to Poland. That was our first outdoor program. We sang the Polish national anthem. Afterward they told us that might have been too nationalistic.
In 1981 we went to Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. On July 4th we sang at Notre Dame – it was filled with Americans. They asked us to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which we’d never prepared. It went off okay.
In 1983 we went to Spain. We sang concerts to packed halls at 10 p.m. – it was still light. And in 1985 we went to England, Wales and Scotland.
In 2010 — the 50th anniversary of Orphenians — George Weigle guest conducted the current elite group in the finale, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Westport was growing, building schools, becoming more affluent. Parents wanted their kids to be in touch with the arts — not just academics. The quality of teachers was so high, because of who John hired – and fired. He made sure the right teachers were at the right levels. As a result kids attracted other kids, and it all just blossomed. Quality led to more quality. It was all because of John’s dream and perseverance.
I think students – particularly at the high school – need the arts, in order to be enhanced and broadened. Here in Westport we’ve got doctors and lawyers who have been exposed to the arts. Westport people perform, and they’re concertgoers, and they see plays. The arts are so important to a rounded personality. Singing and playing with other people is so important. You don’t always realize when you’re in high school how meaningful it is. Sometimes it takes decades to sink in. But it does. It does.
A lot of high schools have music. But not many have music at the level of Westport.
Everyone who ever sang for George Weigle remembers the experience. Jon Gailmor, who still writes, performs and teaches, offered these thoughts.
I was in the Class of 1966 at Staples. I was immersed in the performing arts, and they shaped my every waking moment in high school.
Jon Gailmor (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
With the Orphenians, I got my first taste of the power of music. I’ll never forget watching the faces of school kids in the Virgin Islands as we wailed away. And I remember watching senior citizens in Norwalk and Bridgeport being moved both to tears and guffaws by our songs. In the Staples a cappella choir and boys’ glee club, I experienced the indescribable joy of making a large, harmonious sound and filling auditoriums with its beauty.
I loved a lot of things about Staples, but it was music where I really found out who I was and where my passion lay.
I know quite a few fellow high school performers whose lives have been similarly sparked by our unforgettable musical experiences at Staples.
Today I make and perform my own music, while helping other folks discover their creativity through songwriting residencies. I can honestly thank those three amazing years with George Weigle and my Staples brothers and sisters for the enormous role they played in helping me find my passionate life’s work.