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Mr. Cutlers Opus

In the film Mr. Holland's Opus, Glenn Holland defers his goal of writing a symphony to take a teaching job, only to find his true calling: sharing his love of music with his students.

Just like the silver screen’s Holland, Robert Cutler sparked a contagious passion for music--and for life--in his Lehigh Glee Club students for 25 years. This past weekend, to thank the man who touched them in so many ways, 70 of Cutler's former students returned to Lehigh to surprise him with a 90th birthday celebration and tribute.

"It was the Boss who opened up the vistas that have enriched my life," says Stuart Chen, '79. "You just knew that his heart was overflowing with love for us in the glee club. A 90th birthday tribute? I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Steven Sametz, professor of music who worked alongside Cutler in the music department, says, "We are still building on the legacy Bob Cutler established in his 25 years at Lehigh. Were it not for Bob, choral arts as we know it today would not exist."

To properly honor the man they called "the Boss," Cutler’s former students chose to do a performance—this time with their former leader in the audience instead of at the podium. (Well, for most of the songs. Cutler did come up front to direct a few.) Participants arrived at The Hotel Bethlehem Friday night for a rehearsal and dinner, then arose bright and early at 8 a.m. Saturday for a day filled with socializing and two more rehearsals.

The surprised man of honor arrived at the hotel at 3 p.m. for festivities that included gifts, dinner, and of course, the Lehigh Choral Arts Concert. The group sang songs such as the Lehigh University Alma Mater, The Pasture, by Randall Thompson, Aura Lee, arranged by Ralph Hunter et al, and Ain't That Good News, by William L. Dawson. The choir was made up of glee club alumni from 1955 to 1981, all of whom had one thing in common: They learned to sing under the skillful, kind direction of Cutler.

Cutler was lured back to Bethlehem by former student Paul McKinley ‘71 with the promise of a birthday dinner at a Thai restaurant (Thai is his favorite food). "I was told we were going to be singing some music, so I knew there would probably be a small group,” Cutler says. “But I had no idea it would be close to 70 people. There were students from my first and last classes at Lehigh. It was so great to see them all. I had to fight back the tears—it was so moving."

Cutler adds, "This is the third time the wonderful people at Lehigh have organized a surprise for me. On my 100th birthday, I just may expect something …"

There are as many fond memories of Cutler as there are former glee club students. Here are just some of the stories that brought alumni back to Lehigh to celebrate a man and his enduring legacy.

Paul McKinley '71

My fondest memory of the Boss actually dates back to 1987. Sixteen years after I graduated, during a glee club reunion, Boss mentioned that his record player (remember those?) was broken beyond repair. A few of us decided to organize a glee club alumni fundraiser to buy him a new sound system.

Letters went out to about 450 people asking for contributions. Over 200 people responded and we raised about $4,500. I'll never forget the look on his face when we presented him with a state-of-the-art stereo system and a library of CD's. It's still working well, although Boss recently admitted to me that he has not had time to listen to all the CD's.

Jim Underkoffler '66

For the 1962 Christmas Vespers Concert rehearsal, which that particular year was with the Cedar Crest Choir, the Boss instructed each of us to escort a member of the Cedar Crest Choir to dinner to teach us fellows good manners and hospitality. I was so shy with the opposite gender and feared having to spend a whole dinner making polite conversation with some girl I knew would most likely think me uninteresting (the fear of rejection!).

But, I had a brainstorm: There were one or two girls I had met in high school who were attending Cedar Crest and just might be in the choir. So I grabbed a handful of concert programs, walked to the doorway the girls would be entering, and planned to distribute the programs as a ruse in "scoping out" the girls to see if I could spot a familiar face. I was successful, seeing that of a girl my best friend had dated in high school. Being the first guy to greet these girls allowed me to ask this “non-stranger” if she would be my dinner guest after the rehearsal. She said yes, and I was much relieved.

As the two of us walked from the chapel to the University Center for dinner, I was able to ask some questions, which almost seemed normal, and then at dinner the food warmed the conversation between the two of us freshmen. We chatted about some of the silly things we remembered from the year prior, then began talking in earnest about our thoughts for the future, our values and aspirations. By the time the meal was finished, we had become friends, agreeing to have dinner at Cedar Crest when the glee club was the guest group.

It is now 40 years since this "lesson" in good manners was imposed on me (and the others) by the Boss. I can remember that first evening, and have returned to experience Christmas Vespers almost every year since then and relive the magic of 1962. I remember that face so well. This couple who met at a music rehearsal has been married for 37 years, raised three sons—all of whom have met the Boss several times. I thank the Boss for a lesson in manners. They do pay off!!!

Emily Winn-Deen '74

I recall the Boss's unflagging enthusiasm for music, his infectious smile, and his willingness to embrace women in the glee club with open arms. I approached the Boss about singing with a group. Since there was no established group for female singers, he put me right into the First Tenor section of the glee club!

Talk about instant integration—I was the only woman in a sea of men (not too unlike my experience as a chemistry major), and the first woman in the Lehigh Glee Club! This may not have sat too well with all of the men, but the Boss just cheerily adjusted to the changing times. Shortly afterwards, he started up a separate (but somewhat smaller) women's chorus, and by 1974 the two groups were touring the U.S. Virgin Islands together!

Stuart S. Chen '79

It was the Boss who convinced me, when I was a timid 20-year old, of the value of international travel. I was reluctant to travel abroad, but he spent a lot of time with me, gently but persistently. The glee club's concert tour to Puerto Rico in 1978 was my first trip off-shore.

Since then, emboldened by that experience, I have traveled internationally to Southern Africa, Europe, Japan, Korea, and St. Vincent. I have traveled as a tourist, as a short-term missionary, and as a visiting scholar. When I came back from Africa, it was the Boss I had to go and see, to show him my photos and souvenirs (and to thank him for nudging me out of my comfort zone).

Tom Best '66

No one had a more profound effect on me at Lehigh than the Boss. I recall a particular performance, when he saved the show. The orchestra played up to the solo entrance—but the flutist somehow completely missed the entrance.

Immediately, the Boss whistled the flute's line beautifully, all the while glaring directly at the flutist—until she was able to regain her wits and join in. I marvel to this day at how composed the Boss was. To this day, I'm still a very active choral singer, and I feel I owe my love for music to Boss Cutler.

Linda Lipkis '84

I sang under Bob Cutler's direction for one semester of my senior year, when he filled in for Steven Sametz, who was on sabbatical. I was immediately impressed by Boss's sense of humor and his choral conducting. But one of my favorite memories is when he showed his mettle.

We were working on Witold Lutoslawski's daunting Trois poemes d'Henri Michaux, a work whose angularity and atonalism engendered a fair amount of resistance among the singers. Boss pressed on with unfailing good temper, until one rehearsal when he'd clearly had enough of the whining. He raised his baton for silence and faced us with his lovely broad smile. “I know some of you really don't like this piece,” he said jovially, “but that's just tough. Now let's get down to work!”

There was a moment of shock—Boss had actually scolded us?—followed by an explosion of laughter and applause. In one graceful stroke, he had put an end to the nonsense and the choir went on to perform the piece beautifully.

Actually, my very fondest memory is of sitting next to Boss on the long bus trip to Boston for a joint concert with the Harvard Glee Club that year. I don't recall all the details of our conversation, but I'll never forget how nice he was. I was new to the choir and still feeling shy, and Boss went out of his way to treat me like an adult and a colleague. I will always be grateful for his kindness.

Dudley L. Galloway '64

Every time I participate in my church’s choir or the local community choral group or join in the chorus of our symphony orchestra or in other performance venues that arise in my relatively small town, I remember where those skills were developed—that is, standing on the risers, singing under the direction of Boss Cutler.

I do have one vivid memory of the Boss that occurred a few years after my graduation from Lehigh, probably in 1970. My wife Carol and I stopped off at Hood College in Frederick on the way to visit my folks in Washington. The Lehigh Glee Club was in town and we were treated to another great concert in the Hood Chapel.

We still remember that it was spring and the smell of blooming flowers wafted through the chapel’s open windows. After the concert, I went up and introduced by bride to Boss Cutler. I was surprised he recognized me right away six years after I had graduated. He remembered, too, that my mother, who had worked for the Department of the Interior in Washington, had made sure that the glee club received a properly guided tour when we visited the Morro Castle in San Juan, Puerto Rico, some years before.

Seeing that the Cliff Cleffs were about to do a few numbers, the Boss personally got two folding chairs, set them down about 10 feet in front of the group and invited us to take our seats and enjoy. We definitely had seats of honor and the best in the house. I was kind of relieved that the Cliff Cleff format had by then evolved away from Gershwin show tunes and into a more folk-rock vehicle, with guitars, etc. I was truly honored by the Boss’s personal touch and we have never forgotten that day.

Lynn Scull, '57

At one rehearsal, Bob climbed in through the window of the rehearsal area. I think his excuse was that he was late and that seemed the closest access point.

I also remember that he told us, not with any boastfulness, about his service in the Second World War aboard submarines. It was in the early SONAR days. He was making a point about perfect pitch. His job was to listen to the pings from the SONAR and determine if another (presumably enemy) sub was approaching or going away. The Doppler effect suggests a lower frequency if the sub is receding, or a higher frequency if the sub is approaching.

As Bob knew the frequency at which the signals were being sent out, he could determine by ear if the frequency was lower or higher coming back. He was able to make this discrimination within two or three cycles per second. I was very impressed at the time about the usefulness of perfect pitch.

Donald Stever '65

While many memories of my undergraduate days have faded, the ones of Boss Cuter have stayed vivid. In 1964, the Boss arranged for the glee club to tour Puerto Rico. For most of us, it was our first "offshore" adventure. We flew to San Juan on what was probably the last prop flight from Washington D.C. (where we boarded) to San Juan.

Our very first concert was in a rural neighborhood and our singing was interrupted by (1) chickens and goats running amok in the hall and (2) a tropical rainstorm (there was only a partial roof). Nevertheless, the Boss kept us on pitch and we carried off a magnificent a capella performance for a standing room only crowd, which loved it.

Later on that trip, we made a recording in San German which I (believe it or not) still have. Somehow, he arranged for us an audience with the mayor of San Juan at the end of the trip.

Blake Heffner, '72

The Boss' bright smile—from the radiance of his bald dome, his gleaming eyes to his warm and friendly baritone voice ...

The Boss' marvelous wit—he’s got a story for every occasion, the sharpest memory around, and such a quick sense of humor ...

The Boss' effervescent joy—in making music (playing the organ, piano or singing) and in helping others to make music ...

The Boss' care for others—humility, sensitivity, warmth, and willingness to help anyone anyhow ...

There are so many other qualities. Among the most apparent this past weekend was the realization that we got to know the Boss better than any other faculty member because we spent so much time together. He was like a father to us, and a brother, a mentor and a friend. As one of the guys said on Saturday, he is the reason many of us found a "home" at Lehigh. The glee club was our family.

Posted on Thursday, November 06, 2003

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