For Christmas, let me tell you about Art.
I was in the fifth grade when Art Silhan came to teach seventh grade at McKay School. He was built like Dick the Bruiser, the professional wrestler my brothers imitated on our front room floor, and he drove a purple Cadillac convertible with the top almost always down.
He filled his classroom with plants because they gave off oxygen, and posted famous quotes on the wall because they taught you character. If you screwed up, you could pick one to write 50 times. If you screwed up bad enough, Silhan picked one for you -- the long one, by John F. Kennedy.
My brother, Jim, had Silhan as his teacher that first year. During their first music assembly Jim’s class sang like no McKay class ever had -- in harmony, eyes glued to the teacher and without belching. When they got back to their room, Silhan made them write lines because that wasn’t good enough.
Silhan scared and fascinated. Rumors had it he really was a wrestler, but he accidentally killed a man so he had to quit wrestling and start teaching (seemed like a natural transition). In truth he was a gifted music director who founded several choral groups and sang tenor with the Lyric Opera Chorus.
We didn’t know that -- and that was part of the magic. All we knew was that Silhan had a voice like Old Man Winter, and you sure didn’t want to stir up a blow.
Other teachers were not afraid to cash in on Silhan’s aura. When I was in his class a second grader was caught spitting in the hallway one day. He was marched past the principal’s office and into Silhan’s classroom where he was delivered up for justice. Silhan walked over to the janitor’s closer and hauled out a bucket. He plunked it and the boy under his open-fronted desk and boomed, “You like to spit? Fill’er up!” All afternoon the boy bawled and spit, bawled and spit while Silhan casually carried on with his teaching.
Silhan was also willing to deliver private lessons in etiquette. One day an eighth grader beat up a younger student after school, off school property. The next day he strolled by me in the hallway, then Silhan, tossing off a casual greeting to the teacher.
Silhan replied by grabbing the boy by his shirtfront and lifting him up against a locker. As the boy’s feet dangled several inches above the tiles Silhan pressed his face close and snarled, “Next time you want to pick a fight, pick it with me!” That boy’s fighting days were done.
Physical appearances aside, Silhan’s greatest strength was his music. McKay used to have a Girls’ Chorus that sang some song called “Water, Water, Water” at almost every assembly, complete with burbly sounds. Soon after he arrived at McKay Silhan inherited the chorus, too.
A wondrous thing happened. First, “Water, Water, Water” dried up. Then boys came on board. Then he let them sing “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Dame” from South Pacific, and then we all sang the theme song from “Aquarius”. Suddenly, chorus was cool.
Silhan loaded up school buses and took us to sing at a local mall at Christmas. Later we sang for a convention at Chicago’s McCormick Place. We had to memorize every piece, stand stock still and keep our eyes on our director. If you felt faint you could sit, but you’d better keep singing.
It wasn’t the first or last place we would follow Silhan. Every year he’d invite the chorus (all kids in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades) to the Shrine Circus. Buses would roll, filled with wide-eyed kids whose own parents had never taken them to a circus -- much less their teacher.
At Christmas Silhan ringed his room with baskets and encouraged students to bring in non-perishable foods. Before school let out he’d pick a handful of lucky boys to help him deliver the filled baskets to needy families in the Chicago area.
Most kids lost contact with Silhan when they graduated, but I got lucky.
A visit between he and my mom on a field trip led to an invitation: would I like to sing in his community choir?
In 1947 Silhan had founded a singing group as a way to keep his fellow Lindblom High School choir members together. It was named Musichorale, and would grow to include three choirs: one for three to eight-year-olds, another for eight to sixteen-year-olds, and the adult group.
Over the next eight years I sang first with the middle group, then the adults. We performed annual concerts, caroled in banks and downtown at Christmas, and visited nursing homes to sing for residents at Easter. Along the way, Silhan became Art.
Art always wore a tuxedo at our concerts, and sweat would stream down his face as he stood erect, his great arms embracing over 70 voices as he directed us in song. He mouthed every word, and when we got it just right, his face would crumble with tears of emotion.
When a concert was done he would turn to the audience and bow deep from the waist. When he bowed for his three to eight-year-olds, children in choir robes the size of hankies would bow right along with him, their noses nearly touching the stage.
I left Art and Musichorale behind when I came up north over 20 years ago, but we kept in touch. One time he sent a photo of himself at a mayor’s recognition banquet in Chicago, seated next to Mel Gibson. To tell the truth, even Braveheart looked a little in awe of Art.
A few years ago I got back home for my first spring concert since I’d left. Art had turned his director’s baton over to his son years before, but still came forward to direct a few numbers. I greeted him afterwards, and was swallowed in his big bear hug.
When I got the word this past fall, I plugged a Musichorale Christmas tape into my car radio and sang again for Art. I sing for him still -- without my director, but never lacking his direction.