Former FBC Auburn students go ‘home’ for choir reunion

Former FBC Auburn students go ‘home’ for choir reunion

Dale Peterson, 69, doesn’t think this story should be about him.

He may have been the one up there directing, as always, but the college choir reunion held at First Baptist Church, Auburn, over Memorial Day weekend was this time organized mostly by church member Cathy Summers and Morris Driggers, the church’s associate pastor for music.

“I wish you would talk to other people,” Peterson said, pointing at some of the 80 or so former college choir members catching up with each other around the pipe organ before breaking for barbecue May 26.

The thing is, when you talk to other people, they all just point right back at him.

Peterson served as minister of music at First, Auburn, from 1973 to 2014. He’s currently the church’s minister of music emeritus. The college choir was his passion during his 41 years of service, and that passion was contagious.

Every five years since 1993, folks who sang under Peterson’s direction while students at Auburn University pilgrimage back to the church for two days of choir practice and a Sunday morning reunion concert.

Plenty have done it three, four or five times in a row. They come and make a weekend of it. They’re hooked. They would come every year if they could, maybe twice a year. They are already talking about 2023 on Facebook.

To Peterson, that degree of devotion to keeping the methods and mission of the college choir alive in the age of praise teams and PowerPoint makes perfect sense.

“People had an experience that was meaningful to them,” Peterson said. “Part of it is because it takes them back to another time, but part of it is they want to try to experience the enjoyment of the worship experience that they had.”

Coming back

He’s sure there must have been choirs in other churches in other college towns that inspired that same kind of nostalgia.

“But,” he added, “I’m not sure it’s to this high of a percentage of people who participated here and come back.”

What makes it different? Sure, the barbecue is great. And the stories about hauling the robes around in a casket named Ralph on choir tour get more hilarious every year.

But everyone comes back twice a decade from all over because they know that at practice on Friday night and Saturday morning and definitely come Sunday at 10:59 a.m., Dale Peterson is going to demand that they belt out the best “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” the angels have ever heard.

‘We love the Lord’

“We come together each time because we love Dale and we love the Lord,” said Teri Easterling, a member of Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, Hueytown, who graduated from Auburn in 1974 and sang in Peterson’s first college choirs at First, Auburn.

Easterling has attended every single reunion.

“Morris Driggers read us the words to a song Friday night with lyrics that said, ‘Welcome home, you belong here.’ And all of us were about to tear up, because it felt like we were home.”

Kate Higgins said she definitely felt that way. Of all the baby boomers and Gen Xers who came to give God their best during the 12-song concert Sunday morning, Higgins traveled the farthest.

She lives in Los Angeles. She’s a voice-over artist. She does stuff for Disney. She’s Barbie on that “Life in the Dreamhouse” series of Netflix. For anyone with kids or grandkids under five, she’s Starla on “Blaze and the Monster Machines.” A song she sang for one of Nintendo’s latest Mario video games was one of iTunes’ most downloaded songs when it was released in October 2017.

Higgins broke into voice acting because she could sing so well — in part because Peterson demanded she sing well. Higgins grew up at First, Auburn. She was in the youth choir, then the college choir from 1988 to 1992. The church she attends these days in Los Angeles is an episcopal church.

It’s just not quite the same, she said.

“Singing this kind of music, especially where I live, is very hard to find,” she said. “To get the variety of the styles of music here? There’s just nowhere else to do it. I don’t know any churches really anywhere that sing this kind of music. Most of it is recorded music, and they have the words up on the thing. So to sing in a choir, to sing music from the 1500s to the present, is a rare opportunity.”