In the spring of 1967, a photographer from Look magazine went into the choir room of Roger Tenney in Owatonna, Minnesota, and snapped a picture of the soon-to-be famous teacher.
As the students sang, the instructor — a 37-year-old St. Olaf graduate who had been tutored by the son of famed Norwegian choral conductor F. Melius Christiansen — got up to parade the students around the room.
"These pictures you see there, with him marching us around the room, that wasn't done for the Look magazine photographer," said Bonnie Jean Flom, who was an Owatonna High School senior in 1967. "That's kind of how he operated."
The accompanying glossy spread also gave Americans a brief glimpse into the transformation the masterful choir teacher, who died Aug. 13 at age 93, made in this small city. Tenney inherited a 60-member choir in 1960 and grew the program ten-fold. According to the 1967 article by Look, 600 students auditioned for the A choir — including members of the varsity football team.
That spring, he was selected as "National Teacher of the Year" and flew with his students to Washington D.C., for the ceremony. On the opening night, they serenaded then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey at his residence — the Watergate in D.C.'s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
"When Hubert Humphrey and Muriel walked in, and we surrounded them and sang, 'Minnesota, Hail to Thee,' I remember the Secret Service [detail] kind of going, 'Whoa,'" recalled Flom, who followed Tenney into a career in education.
At the presentation of the award in the Rose Garden of the White House by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the choir sang "Let There Be Peace" and "Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. Standing next to Tenney was his wife and three daughters, including 3-year-old Sharon Tenney, who wore a dress to match her sisters'.
"That was a major feather in his cap, and for Owatonna," said Sharon. "But also for music education because he was the first national teacher [of the year] for the arts."
Tenney's choir sang a mix of traditional choral classics, including Lutheran hymns, as well as popular standards and Broadway showtunes. When they returned to Owatonna, locals gave the choir a hero's welcome with a gathering in Central Park and a standing ovation at the spring pops concert.
Peter Schleif, who graduated in 1990, took choir classes from Tenney and was his neighbor. Schleif said the choral arts instructor held a commanding presence in the classrooms and hallways of Owatonna High School.
"He led with a strong hand," Schleif said. "In rehearsal, in particular, he was quite strict."
But he also remembers his teacher's lightheartedness out of the classroom — often quick to humor.
Tenney's wife died of cancer toward the end of his teaching days; he retired in 1992. Soon after, he picked up work as a host on a cruise line. After years of corralling students, the conductor brought his same zest for coaxing harmony from large groups to seafaring tourists.
Sharon said her father's effervescent spirit was renowned in Owatonna. He loved roller coasters and telling jokes. Sometimes, the neighbor kids would pop over after supper.
"These kids would come to the doorway and ring the bell and ask, 'Can Mr. Tenney come out and play?'"
While he was in hospice, days before he died, Sharon fondly remembers singing with her father, including "A Bushel and a Peck" from Guys and Dolls and the choir teacher's favorite hymn, "I Love to Tell the Story."
The family held a memorial service last month. A public reception will be held Oct. 14 in Owatonna from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Owatonna Arts Center. Donations in Tenney's name can be made to the F. Melius Christiansen Endowment Fund of the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota.