Longtime St. Laurence band leader directs his last stanza
A man widely acclaimed as a giant among school bandleaders and teachers—not only in the Chicago area, but also the Midwest—recently waved his baton for the last time at an emotional farewell concert at St. Laurence High School in Burbank.
Patrick J. Henning, who taught more than 10,000 student musicians during his 46 years in music, led an alumni orchestra of more than 100 former students from St. Laurence, Queen of Peace, Brother Rice and Mother McAuley High Schools, with several hundred former students and their families, as well as colleagues, family and friends, in the audience at the event—dubbed The Legacy Concert--on June 7.
Henning is the son and protégé of the late Leo J. Henning, as much an iconic bandleader and music educator as his son, with a career that spanned from 1942 to his retirement in 2000, eight years before his death.
Like his father, Henning was renowned for building school bands that were “more than a band that plays the school song at football games,” as he said at the farewell concert, imparting class and sophistication to student musicians.
Son salutes father
In written remarks reflecting on his career, the younger Henning gave much credit to his mentor father.
“My college buddies have proclaimed for 50 years, ‘Henning is the only one of us that has never had a job or worked a day in his life,’” he wrote. “I couldn’t agree more. How does one get up every day of his life and get to do what he loves to do, which is my passion for music and teaching, and call it work?
“Professionally, my life could not have been better,” Henning continued. “As I have said many times, one of the greatest gifts I have received in life was being able to work side by side with my father for 30 years.”
He also thanked Susan, his wife of 47 years—“the cute little percussionist Susan Farrell of the Quincy University Wind Ensemble”—for marrying him and being his “soul mate, rock, lover and best friend.” He also tipped his cap to his three children and six grandchildren.
The music, the memories
The concert itself was classic Henning and explored nine varied works, including an “old chestnut” like Franz Von Suppe’s “The Poet and the Peasant Overture,” challenging and ambitious works played beautifully (most notably John Mackey’s “A Hymn to a Blue Hour”) with a bit of pops thrown in (Sammy Cahn’s “Come Fly with Me”) to lighten the mood and get the audience smiling and swaying in their seats.
The concert program noted that in addition to having an impact on four high school bands (St. Laurence, Brother Rice, Leo and Little Flower), Henning’s work touched 20 elementary school bands, including St. Patricia in Hickory Hills and St. Catherine, St. Gerald, St. Linus, St. Germaine and St. Louis de Montfort in Oak Lawn. He started band programs at six grade schools, including St. Germaine, St. Linus and St. Louis de Montfort.
Many of his students have gone on to careers as music teachers and bandleaders, including saxophonist Rich Daniels, who founded the famous City Lights Orchestra more than 40 years ago. Daniels was a featured soloist at the farewell concert.
In advance of the emotional sendoff, a number of Henning’s former students sent him messages of gratitude.
Several agreed to share excerpts with The Reporter.
“In hindsight, it may not have been the wisest of decisions to hand a box of spray paint to a trombone player who spent three years perfecting your caricature,” wrote Rich Bird, an editor with Crain Communications who grew up in Evergreen Park and is a 1990 graduate of Brother Rice High School. “Likewise, the passing years have led me to conclude that painting your mug on the 50-yard line of the St. Laurence practice field, for all the summer band kids to trample on, may not have come across as an expression of respect. Though it should.
“You exercised the patience of a saint,” Bird continued. “You didn’t hand me anything that wasn’t deserved. You encouraged me to reach for more. And you were the first guy to throw the word 'leadership' in my face. I spent the last 25 years working to live up to it. Thanks for everything and congratulations on an amazing career.”
Cathy Claussen Dewes, a 1991 Queen of Peace graduate who lived in Oak Lawn during her high school years, echoed the sentiment.
“Music has been such a big part of my life, all of my life. But the best and most influential years by far were the four years I spent in the St. Laurence band,” she wrote to Henning. “You and Mr. Leo Henning pushed us to achieve things that I never thought were possible. We were always challenged to work hard, to keep improving, to persevere, and to achieve our goals.
“All of the practices, the band camps, the concerts, the competitions...it was what I lived for,” she continued. “It was hard work, but I loved every minute of it. You were never concerned with how we placed in a competition. Your biggest concern was that we kept improving, so that each performance was better than the last. You taught us to compete with ourselves and to never accept mediocrity.
“The work ethic and the lessons that I learned in band have transferred to every aspect of my life, both personally and professionally,” she concluded. “You and your dad have left a tremendous legacy, and I was extremely fortunate to have been a part of it.”
Colleen McCoy-Cejka was a Queen of Peace student living in Oak Lawn when she first encountered Henning.
“I am grateful to have been part of your program for so many reasons,” she wrote. “You taught me music and marching and leadership, but I think most of all what I learned…was that high expectations are non-negotiable. What you accomplished with your students year after year is a result of your gift for being visionary and believing in others. Thank you for doing that for us and for teaching me so I could do the same for others.
“I am grateful for the experiences your program gave me,” she added. “I learned to win and lose, to be proud and to be humble, to work hard and have fun at the same time. I traveled to Ireland and Phoenix and all over the cornfields of the Midwest. Until I started traveling with students myself as a teacher, I had no idea how brave (crazy?) you were to travel with such large groups of kids year after year. Thank you so much for having the courage (or high level of insanity) to give us the gift of travel together!”
Today, McCoy-Cejka serves as assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Phoenix.
A video of the concert is in editing and will be posted in the weeks ahead, according to a spokesperson for St. Laurence High School.