After Nearly Three Decades As Choir Director, Don Busarow Bids Farewell
With only the subtle beat of hard-soled shoes across a slate floor echoing in Weaver Chapel, Wittenberg Choir members recessed in near silence behind their beloved maestro for the final time March 19. Some showed tears; others hid the evening’s emotions as Don Busarow, the man who created a 28-year masterpiece of ministry through music, said goodbye.
Wearing the same tuxedo he bought used back in 1982, the 76-year-old directed with the same grace, passion, enthusiasm and joy that defined his entire career as Wittenberg’s fourth director in the choir’s 80-year history. “It’s been a ride I’ll never forget and never regret,” Busarow said. “The choir gave my whole life a different direction and emphasis.” The same holds true for those fortunate enough to have performed under Busarow’s direction.
“Dr. B’s leadership and spiritual guidance of the group were outstanding,” recalled Kristy Knechtges Ostrica ’96. “I felt like I was a part of something greater, a true devotion to God through our talent for vocal music. To this day, when I hear certain hymns in church, I get choked up, thinking of my time with Dr. B and the Witt Choir.” “Dr. Busarow shared with the choir members gifts of musicianship, spirituality, humor, compassion, just to name a few,” added Bob Hobby ’85. “These gifts have encouraged young singers to grow in a variety of directions. He has always sought to create that environment, and I know many current and former singers join me in thanking [him] for [his] desire and energy to enable that experience.”
“I always say that Dr. B unveiled his master plan over the course of four years,” continued Sarah Crouse ’99. “You learned about him and his philosophy in bits and pieces. In the middle of practice, he started talking about something not related specifically to that piece but which reminded him of something which made that moment memorable. His directing style was unique. He wasn’t one of those directors flailing his arms all over the place, allowing the choir to zone out and focus somewhere else. His small gestures (a finger lifted here, an eyebrow there) required close attention.”
Busarow taught many “lessons of friendship, lessons of discipline, lessons of music, lessons of relationships, lessons in traditions, and most importantly, lessons in faith,” added Jordan Benavente ’05. “I had not lost my faith, but rather tucked it away in a cubbyhole and his glorious music helped me to dust it off.”
And yet, with each comment or kind word shared, Busarow deflects the attention back to those who willingly gave up their spring breaks annually to share in a ministry set to music.
“What this group of people did and will hopefully continue to with their time on spring break is true relationship-building,” Busarow said. “They are connecting with people and maintaining a relationship with the audience through each performance. They are also bringing back memories of this place, Wittenberg.”
Finding the right tempo
Pondering the final choir concert of his career, Busarow found himself reflecting on “this place” and the path set before him years ago. At home in his Krieg 407 office where framed 8 x10s of all 28 choirs hang evenly around the room, where a chess game sits behind a black-leather chair and where hundreds of compositions, many composed by his own hands, rest on wooden shelves, Busarow initially envisioned sharing his love of Lutheran church music in classrooms and as the university organist. Choirs, he noted, often have a loyalty to their director in a way few can understand, so following in the footsteps of someone else, in this case John Williams ’67, seemed somewhat daunting.
“The first year as the interim director was tough,” he recalled, but as the position turned permanent, Busarow began to chart his own course. “In just one year, we doubled the size of the choir, and thanks to contacts I had, we were able to develop four tours.”
In 1984, the choir traveled to Florida to perform at various churches, while they stayed in the homes of congregation members. The following year, the choir headed to the upper Midwest, specifically Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. In 1986, New England as far as Boston served as the site of the spring concert, followed in 1987 by a southeast tour, including Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The tour schedule would then repeat every four years, so a first-year choir member could potentially have a different tour all four of his or her years at Wittenberg.
“I still have alumni tell me that their four years in the choir were the most memorable they had here,” he said. “I cherish those moments.”
Busarow also cherishes the times shared by the choir members after each performance.
Every morning after a concert, Busarow would meet the choir in the church where it performed the night before. Some members would share a special memory or a prayer during this devotional time. Others would spontaneously sing a favorite stanza from a treasured piece of music.
“It was a very religious experience for some,” Busarow said. “The choir members would grow together in faith.”
“Dr. B gave us the opportunity to find our ability to make beautiful music together and develop a love for each other that we hold onto forever,” said Ed ’97 and Cathy Speers Hasecke ’97. “He had a gift for helping us love and understand the words because he had a deep and abiding faith that made you love the words. His understated hand movements were what the audience could see, but the true direction came from his face. His eyes would close, and you were lost in the music. He showed us devotion to a church and the importance of tradition and the way to notice those fleeting moments of spiritual clarity.”
During performances, all those elements would combine to connect the choir to its audiences and the audiences with Wittenberg in indescribable ways – ways often only revealed by tears, quiet thoughts or subtle changes in facial composition. “I would remind the choir members before each performance that they are connecting with people in ways far beyond an extra-curricular activity,” Busarow said. “They are developing a relationship, and they are creating moments that will never be erased.”
A virtuoso in the making
Such moments also remind Busarow of some of his own early connections, including a life-changing one that happened in elementary school. “I knew in third grade that I was going to do church music,” he said. He also knew that the gift he had – the ability to reproduce music without any trouble – was a gift from God.
His teacher, Leslie Zeddies at St. John’s Lutheran School in Racine, Wisc., recognized his gifts as well, so much so that he would ensure Busarow had the chance to help the organ tuner every time he visited. Since the organ-tuning involved a two person process, Busarow would press the keys as the tuner directed. When the tuner would leave for lunch, Busarow would stay and play the organ for as long as he could.
By age 7, Busarow, whose father was born in Lithuania and whose mother was born in Russia, began formally studying music as a first-generation American. Because of his parents’ backgrounds, Busarow found himself deeply interested in the music of the Orthodox Church. He eventually went on to earn his bachelor’s from Concordia University, Chicago, followed by his master’s from The Cleveland Institute of Music and his Ph.D. from Michigan State University.
In 1975, he joined the Wittenberg faculty and was appointed to the official post of choir director in 1982. During his more than three decades at Wittenberg, Busarow has re-engaged the choir with chapel activities, including during Advent and at Reformation services, taught music theory and composition, directed the chapel choir and served as university organist. His published works are included in the catalogs of seven publishing houses, and his own hymn festivals have taken him around the country and world.
“My life has been divine providence,” Busarow explains. “I’ve made many decisions, and every single one of them was the right one.”
He counts Wittenberg among the right decisions.
“I have other jobs offers in my career, but I couldn’t leave this place because it has meant so much to me.” Watching more than 200 alumni choir members walk toward the Weaver Chapel chancel on March 19 in preparation for the traditional joint singing of “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” sung at the conclusion of every choir concert, it was clear that Busarow has meant so much to the choir. As the time for Busarow to take his final bow neared, the Wittenberg Choir, in a way only it could, captured the essence of the entire experience with their hand-picked selection of “Calling My Children Home.” With voices lifted in praise before alumni, colleagues, friends, Busarow’s wife Peg, and all six of their grown children and their families, they sang:
“Those lives of mine to love and cherish, To guard and guide along life’s way.
O God, forbid that one should perish, That one alas should go astray.
Back in the years with all together, Around the place we’d romp and play.
So lonely now, I often wonder, O will they come back home some day?…
I lived my life, my love I gave them, To guide them through the world of strife.
I hope and pray we’ll live together In that great glad hereafter life.”
“I’ve grown to love these people so much,” Busarow said. “This is the place I wanted to be and where I want it to end. It was a God-send to have the choir.”