Not afraid to cry. Not afraid to correct. Not afraid to love.
Mike McQuerrey, Mr. Mac to his students, was not afraid to sing either.
“I remember running to Bakersfield from Caliente down Bena Grade with Mike singing 'The hills are alive with the sound of music,' said Sally Baker, one of his running partners. Then, we’d finish a long run and he’d have a cigarette.”
McQuerrey, the longtime choir leader died Monday at 71. If there is a heaven, Mr. Mac’s first order of business will be to lead the band of heavenly angels in his favorite anthem, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You," which he had every high school choir sing and the last one students and former students sang to him before he crossed the bar and started his journey home.
McQuerrey would conduct with “a glimmer in his eyes, his hands lingering in midair, waiting to give the downbeat,” said Mason Trueblood.
“A group of us went to see Mike McQuerrey to sing 'The Lord Bless You and Keep You' to him one more time, and to thank him for all he has meant to us,” wrote Kevin Trueblood, Mason's dad, on Facebook, several weeks ago.
“It was a choir of about 18 from a mix of his schools (McQuerrey taught at South, Liberty, Arvin and West). As we began to sing, I looked down at him and he was mouthing the words along with us.”
Some teachers are for real. They’re not playing around, which doesn’t mean they can’t laugh and have fun but they never forget what their mission is: Teach, mold, be an example and don’t let their students get away with murder.
Everybody has teachers like that. They aren’t always popular to begin with. Not with the disparity between reasonable standards and the sort of insolence in which most teenagers major in.
“The first time I sang at First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, I was in the eighth grade,” wrote Ben Harris.
“I played the part of the disciple Peter for a church musical. In rehearsal, behind me, sat a way-too-energetic dude with a beard, but an awesome singing voice. Every time someone sang a solo you could hear him encouraging and complimenting them. I thought 'this guy needs to calm down.' Who does he think he is?"
Harris had just started singing. Harris was a nervous wreck. Harris wasn’t convinced that singing was for dudes rather than girls.
“Before I stood to rehearse my solo at the microphone, in front of all the other talented people at the church, the bearded man behind me put his hand on my shoulder and said 'You're awesome,'" Harris wrote.
“Awesome” and interesting too. McQuerrey was a bird watcher (he spent hours in the Arizona desert watching birds) and a long-distance runner (he ran over 10,000 miles with his best friend, Grady Buck) who smoked. He ran track in high school in Texas against Bob Hayes, the sprinter and NFL football star, and played football at UOP.
He had a doctorate in music from the University of Michigan, was the director of the Bakersfield Master Chorale for 13 years and the director of the Chancel Choir at the First United Methodist Church.
McQuerrey won more awards than the Patriots have Super Bowls rings. He won teacher of the year award so many times (and probably inspiring several generations of new teachers) they could have retired the award and put his name on it.
The awards were fine but even better was his family, a family that included thousands of students and his wife of 50 years, Susan, daughter Tara Haner and his four grandchildren.
Raise your voices
Several years ago, I went to the spring choir concert at Liberty High School. I had no kid connection there and no reason to go except one: Mike McQuerrey was the choir teacher and he was worth getting in the car for. Worth jumping through fiery rings, facing hostile armies and giving up "Seinfeld” reruns.
Under McQuerrey, average singers became good, and good singers great. His singers — football players, tennis players, special ed students and voice majors — stood shoulder to shoulder and sang together like a band of brothers and sisters.
They sang in Latin and if you closed your eyes, you thought you were in Rome listening to the Roman Tabernacle Choir (I made that up).
Toward the end of the program, McQuerrey invited former students to come up and sing with the choir. Half the seats in the auditorium emptied. Soon there were more singers on stage than extras in "Ben Hur" and they sang as if they’d never left the campus.
Their allegiance made sense. Choir, for many, was a safe zone. In high school, being in a choir can be the difference between being lost or found. Being somebody or being a mess.
“The last song I sang in front of him was a song that I wrote," former student Harris shared. “I performed it for the first time at the First United Methodist Church on the same stage and on the same microphone that I had sang my solo in the eighth grade. Only this time, the man who had successfully brought me from adolescence and into adulthood was sitting in front of me. He had tears streaming down his face. He knew he had inspired the entire song.”
After Harris was done, he made his way into the choir room. Mr. Mac was there.
Two men cried, two men hugged and two men told each other how much they loved each other.
“I will never have another moment like that, because there will never be another Mr. Mac,” Harris said.
For his earthly choir left behind, McQuerrey’s instruction might be something like this:
"Stand up straight. Breathe in. Sing and keep singing."