By Joe Rector
Nothing in my high school career was better than chorus. Milton Nelson chose his group with care, and to be in the class was an honor. My freshman year was spent in band, but playing the trumpet just didn’t offer that much fun, especially to a pimple-faced kid with braces. So, I auditioned for choir the next year and managed to get in.
We worked in that class. Mr. Nelson taught us to sing with voices supported by plenty of air. We “ha-ha-haed” and “ho-ho-hoed” before vocalizing the first note. He taught us to enunciate so that audiences could understand the words we sang. It was a class of hard work, but not one person ever dropped the course. Each of us knew that in the spring we would board buses and travel to other places to sing.
Our first choir trip was to Falls Church, Virginia and Washington, D.C. We performed concerts along the way at schools and for our host families. I remember that I fell hard for a girl in their choir named Nora, but it never amounted to anything.
Some of us ventured out to tour D.C. Yes, back then students were allowed to be on their own because none of us would ever do anything to bring trouble to our director. We walked until a cab stopped and asked us if we’d like to hire him. For an amount that I no longer remember, the man loaded us into the car and gave us a tour of the most famous places. He’d sit in the car and wait until we were ready to head to the next monument. At the Lincoln Monument, we sang and delighted in the acoustics of that place. After visiting the last place, we were tired and ready to rest. By the way, not long before we were to go in mid-April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, and for a while, the trip was in doubt.
The next year we traveled through South Carolina. After performing at several places, we arrived in Charleston, SC. We toured the battery, old slave market, and Fort Sumter. Even though that trip was over 50 years ago, Charleston is still my favorite place to visit, and Isle of Palms is my favorite beach.
The trip my senior year was to someplace in Florida. The trip wasn’t as good as the previous ones. I managed to injure an already bad ankle playing basketball one evening. That meant hobbling to go anywhere, and I couldn’t perform with the choir either. We were far in the boonies of Florida, if there is such a thing, and a young boy whose family I stayed with asked me what it was like to live in a big city like Knoxville. The year was 1970, and Knoxville was in no way a big city.
Think about how special Milton Nelson was. He worked to make his choirs the best in the county. He attended other school activities to support students. He taught all of us to love music and singing. Mr. Nelson moved not long after I graduated and took up residence in upper East Tennessee. I saw him once when my son was 10 and playing in a tournament. We were eating at Waffle House and there he was. He’d married by then and had his daughter with him. I sometimes see a photo of him on Facebook. His hair and beard are snow white, and he loves playing Santa Claus.
Mr. Nelson introduced me to some places outside of Knoxville that I still enjoy. The biggest gift he gave me, however, was singing and the joys it provides. These days, my voice creaks or completely stops when I try to sing, and that bothers me. Still, I will always remember the man who called me and my twin brother “Heckle and Jeckel.” Thanks for the lessons, Mr. Nelson. They’ve made my life much fuller.