By Celine Klosterman
FORT MADISON — After Allen Chapman sang his first solo during a school concert, his eighth-grade English teacher told him he had a special gift.
“I don’t think anyone ever told me I had a special gift before that,” recalled the vocal music teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic Junior/Senior High School.
But he would go on to receive similar compliments throughout his music-filled life. During his eight years teaching at Catholic schools in Lee County and his 42 years in education, students and show choirs he directed racked up awards and earned reputations throughout the Midwest. But for the 63-year-old Chapman, who’s preparing to retire from full-time work, a career in education almost didn’t happen.
As a freshman music major at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, the Ottumwa native quickly grew frustrated with required studies in dry music theory. So he declared a double major in English and religious studies instead. But classes for those subjects seemed too easy, so he returned to his original major sophomore year and graduated with a degree in music education.
“I didn’t intend to teach long,” he said. “I wanted to be Pat Boone.”
During Chapman’s first year in education, as a K-12 music teacher for the Moravia Community School District, he felt he was struggling. “I thought the students weren’t paying attention.”
But they started earning top ratings at vocal music competitions. “People told me they’d never heard concerts like ours in Moravia,” he said. “By my third year, the students were doing better than any other small school. By that time, it sunk in that I would probably be OK.”
He shared ideas with and got input from his wife Sandra, whom he met while she was teaching music at Parsons College in Fairfield. The couple eventually moved near Marshalltown, and Chapman taught and started a show choir at LDF High School in Le Grand. But Sandra wanted to live in a larger town, so the Chapmans moved to and found work in Fort Madison in 1978. During their years as public-school teachers there, they traveled the country leading workshops and vocal music clinics. Both educators eventually earned master’s degrees.
In 2003, Chapman left Fort Madison High School to take advantage of state retirement benefits, but didn’t feel ready to stop teaching. So he took a position at Marquette Junior/Senior High School in West Point, which merged with Aquinas schools in Fort Madison to form Holy Trinity. He also taught classes at Western Illinois University and later, Southeastern Community College.
After he arrived at Marquette, students began earning spots in the Iowa All-State Music Festival and Opus Honor Choir, he said. In show choir competitions, Holy Trinity has won first-place awards in class 1A annually since 2006, and it has repeatedly placed ahead of much larger schools outside its class.
Chapman credits hard work and students’ willingness to take direction. “There’s no magic secret — it takes time and repetition,” he said. Rehearsals at 7 a.m. and after sports practice were common.
He has other coaching tips, too — seek advice from and imitate the best of other schools, be your authentic self. Students won’t trust a teacher who conveys artificiality, he believes.
One former student whose trust he earned is Steve Woodin, a retired vocal music instructor and show choir director at Urbandale High School. “He’s the reason I went into teaching,” Woodin said.
The retired educator said he was a struggling junior at Moravia High School when Chapman arrived. “He stuck with me. When most people said I wasn’t going to amount to anything, he said, ‘Don’t give up; hard work always pays off.’”
Thanks to Chapman’s encouragement, Woodin enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan College and graduated with a degree in music.
“I modeled my life after him,” Woodin said. “I put in long hours to show I cared for my students. I wanted to do the same things for them that he did for me.”
Jacquelyn Knustrom, a junior at Holy Trinity, said Chapman is the reason many students are in show choir. Currently, about 70 of 120 high school students are involved as singers, instrumentalists or crew members, he said. And about 75 percent of students in grades nine to 12 sing in the school’s chorus.
Knustrom recalled how after one show choir member stopped attending morning rehearsals, Chapman began driving to the student’s house to pick him up.
“He’ll work with you at any time of the day,” said junior Taylor Holtkamp, recalling 9 p.m. rehearsals at his house for the all-state festival.
But he’s not afraid to let the seriousness go, said junior Sarah Kunch.
“He puts you at ease with his jokes,” said junior Angeline Powers.
Gail Kunch, who teaches science at Holy Trinity, said Chapman has been a big influence on her daughters Sarah and Evie. He helped Sarah earn a spot three years ago in the Midwest American Honor Choir that traveled to Europe. That experience helped her grow and mature, Kunch said. He has boosted both girls’ confidence, encouraged students to sing at church and elsewhere, and supported their activities outside of music. “We’re going to miss him terribly.”
Chapman said he’ll miss Holy Trinity’s supportiveness and family atmosphere. He expects less opportunity to bond with students next year, when he plans to travel the Midwest part-time directing music festivals, judging show choirs and leading workshops. But he wants to honor that plan for his future, which he and Sandra made before she died following a heart attack April 8.
“People here have been fabulous to me and Sandy,” he said. “This has been a great way to end my classroom teaching career.”