OWATONNA — The first class of the Owatonna Music Hall of Fame was celebrated Tuesday night before and during the annual Owatonna High School Pops Concert.
Owatonna’s “proud tradition of athletics” and the athletic Hall of Fame sparked the notion of executing a similar hall for music, since the city has also been distinguished by its musicians for decades, said Jerry Besser, who spearheaded the Music Boosters of Owatonna’s efforts to create this hall of fame. “We’re working on a permanent display” inside OHS that will be similar to the one for the athletic HOF and will “send the right message.”
The initial class includes Harry Wenger, Arnold Krueger, Arnold Krueger’s son (also Arnold), Roger Tenney, James VanDemark, and the Wenger Corporation.
“What an honor,” Tenney said Tuesday. “This town is full of music.”
Owatonna was “a wonderful place to grow,” with individuals like Wenger “setting the pace,” and Tenney was a national teacher of the year “because of being in a city like this,” he said. “There are a lot more people to receive this award” in future years.
As Krueger, the younger, reflected on his early life in Owatonna, he remembered a substantial number of individuals who went on to careers in music in one capacity or another, he said. “The strong music programs” in Owatonna are “not something every school has,” and “we are so lucky in Owatonna.”
His life in music was possible because of the support from staff, teachers, and the community, he said. “Everything just fit together.”
Krueger moved to Owatonna with his parents when he was a year old and stayed until starting college at the University of Minnesota. He then joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1972 and remained a violinist for that symphony for 45 years.
Picking up Tuesday’s award is “a very great honor,” said Krueger. “It’s something I never imagined.”
It was all the more special to be inducted in the same class as his father, although the latter was unable to attend Tuesday. His father spent a half-century as a string teacher and OHS orchestra conductor, and he was celebrated with the American String Teachers Association’s first-ever Teacher of the Year Award. He’s a member of the Minnesota Music Educations Association (MMEA) Hall of Fame, and he was first violin for the Mankato Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade.
Tenney taught in Owatonna for decades, and he was the state and national teacher of the year in 1966-1967, which led to a performance by his OHS concert choir at the White House. He directed 16 all-state choirs throughout the U.S., and the OHS concert choir represented the state of Minnesota at the Seattle World’s Fair.
“We had a good choir,” Tenney said in typical Midwestern understatement. Members “liked it, and people liked it.”
He did have one problem early in his tenure, a lack of males, so “I went to every football game” to recruit for the choir, and, indeed, the genders soon balanced, he said. “The choir got some acclimation.”
Wenger began his career as a teacher, and he also served as band, orchestra, and choir director for Owatonna Public Schools from 1936-1946 before starting Wenger Corporation in his home basement. After getting the business off the ground, he returned to the district as a teacher while simultaneously running the burgeoning company.
The Wenger Corporation continues to manufacture all manner of music equipment — from risers and acoustic shells to posture chairs and stands — found in schools worldwide, including, naturally, Owatonna schools. The company remains headquartered in Owatonna.
Wenger, whose legacy lives on with the Harry Wenger Marching Band Festival each summer in Owatonna, was president of his eponymous company from 1953-1970 and chairman of the board until 1983. He was honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the Minnesota Music Educators Association, the Edwin Franko Goldman Award from the American School Band Director’s Association, and the Gold Key Distinguished Service Award from Owatonna’s chamber of commerce, and he served on board of the Vandercook College of Music, Owatonna Foundation, and Minnesota Orchestra.
VanDemark, a native of Owatonna, was appointed professor of double bass at the Eastman School in 1976 at age 23, the youngest person ever to hold such a position at a major music school, according to the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. His students hold roles in virtually every major world orchestra, and he’s been the recipient of numerous commissioned works, including those by three Pulitzer Prize winners.
He was also integral to launching “Music in Owatonna” in the early 1990s, according to Besser. VanDemark helped land several outstanding acts for the new concert series in the city.
Owatonna was — and still is — “an extraordinary place,” and it will “continue to be a marvelous place for future generations” of musicians, VanDemark said Tuesday. VanDemark enjoyed tremendous opportunities for learning while in the city, and those chances remain available for young musicians now with the current crop of teachers in town.
Those instructors, like Chris Harris, current director of choirs at OHS, Pete Guenther, current director of bands at OHS, and Sandra Justice, current orchestra director at OHS, plus the middle and elementary educators, follow in the “footsteps” of “legendary” teachers like Krueger, Tenney, and Wenger, VanDemark said.
“There’s something very special in the air here,” he said. “That’s going to continue for a long time.”
Owatonna’s young musicians continue to enjoy immense community support, a point demonstrated by — among other examples — the fact that OHS always has the largest contingent of fans during the Big Nine music festival, wherever it happens to be held in a given year, Besser said. “That says a lot.”
In future years, community members will be able to nominate honorees for the music hall of fame, he said. “We’ll try to improve on” the ceremony itself in later editions, too, but “it’ll be hard to do” considering the elite group “we have here” Tuesday for the inaugural class.