This glee club teacher hit the right notes

Great teachers, it seems, are never forgotten.

Last week I posted on Facebook a quick story about John R. Vogel, who taught choir for 27 years at South Bend LaSalle High School.

I had been wandering through YouTube and found a London Philharmonic video of the song “For Unto Us A Child is Born,” which is part of George Frideric Handel’s 1741 classic oratorio  “Messiah.” 

I posted that the song took me back to my days in the LaSalle Glee Club and to the Christmas Concert, which sold out two nights a year. It was one of the best annual events at the now defunct high school.

The reason it was so good can be described in two words: John Vogel.

For all who were lucky enough to take his class, this guy was simply amazing. Through him, we learned a few gospel songs, a few classical songs, a few swing songs, a few pop songs, a few ethnic songs, a few … you get the idea. It wasn’t just a class in singing, it was a class about appreciating music in all its forms and ethnic beginnings. We were learning history and culture without even trying.

The guy was a difference-maker. 

Back in the day, choir was often a class that was an easy A and therefore became a dumping ground for the not-so-motivated student. In addition, the years I attended LaSalle — 1967-71 — were marked by racial unrest, VietNam protests and increasing drug use. In fact, one year we elected a purported drug dealer as president of our class. It was tough to be a teacher.

Through it all strode Vogel, a Wisconsin native with a Notre Dame degree and a great combination of love and chutzpa. It did not take long for the student to understand that this guy was different. He cared about his music, about his craft and about his students. His enthusiasm and sense of humor day in and day out created almost a cult-like admiration for the man. Glee Club was a class we looked forward to, and the annual concerts became a point of pride. 

It was amazing. And, as self-absorbed teenagers, we did not know how good we had it.

It wasn’t until after Vogel died at age 51 in 1991 that his former students began to appreciate him. He made it look so easy. Just show up, teach, play a few songs and go home, right?

Not so fast. Vogel, who was named South Bend Community School’s Teacher of the Year in 1989,  showed the students what enthusiasm and love for your work looked like. 

He worked hard and he expected nothing but the best from us. In fact, he once had the choir walk off the stage at a school assembly spring concert because the audience would not settle down. I still recall the moment he pointed his two thumbs outward, signaling us to leave the stage while the stunned student body (and teaching staff) watched.

I am fairly certain he was disciplined for that, but the point was made, at least to the glee club. Respect is a two-way street. 

Most of my Facebook posts get about 10 likes. This one, however, garnered more than 150 in a day. While that post isn’t about to go viral, the outpouring of comments and love regarding Vogel spoke of the lasting impression he made during some of our most impressionable years. “Best teacher I ever had” was said often. 

I just retired (for the final time) from teaching business in college. I am proud of my efforts. My methods, like Vogel’s, were based on trying to improve each student. I hope that I too, was a difference-maker.

I can only hope that one day some of my former students will say the kinds of things about me that a bunch of old glee club members said about John Vogel last week.

To be a difference-maker, more than anything, is the final reward that any teacher hopes for.