Noted Cedar Rapids composer, conductor dies

Koepke battled pancreatic cancer since 1996; remembered for faith, musical excellence

Diana Nollen
Published: September 24 2012 | 12:40 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 12:54 am in
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A man who lived larger than life is being remembered as a man who demanded excellence and embraced every day as a gift from God.

Tributes are pouring in via Facebook, email and phone calls from people eager to share their memories of Allen Koepke, 73,  as they work through their shock and sorrow after his death at 5:30 p.m. Sunday (9/23/12) at St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

Teachers, students, musicians and members of the faith community are joining in unison to sing the praises of the gifted composer, conductor, educator and friend who beat the odds of pancreatic cancer 16 years ago, but succumbed to internal bleeding -- a lingering effect of the "extreme radiation" used to treat his illness all those years ago, daughter Amy Hanisch of Walford said.

Family and close friends gathered at his bedside and sang to him in his final moments.

"It was so special," said Hanisch, who teaches music at Coolidge Elementary in Cedar Rapids and conducts the children's Discovery Chorus for Orchestra Iowa. "His pastor was there and all of his kids. We just decided we would stand around his bed and sing. And we sang hymns and it was cool, because everybody there was a singer, so it was four-part harmony, and my dad's countenance changed. ... He was there, but not there. ... A peace came over his face, and I thought, 'How fitting, that this is how you would leave, hearing a choir.' It was something I'll never forget."

He left an indelible print on hundreds, if not thousands, of high school and college students, church choirsters and community singers who traveled on his overseas choir tours. He built up Kirkwood Community College's music program and founded Jefferson High School's award-winning West Side Delegation, setting the gold standard for show choirs in Cedar Rapids and beyond. He retired from Kirkwood in 1997, after falling ill.

More than 70 of his musical compositions have been published and his music is consistently chosen for high school All-State music contests and performed in colleges across the nation.

(Click here to see video footage of Mr. Koepke in front of an orchestra and talking about his experiences.)

"I cannot think of another individual who has had such an impact on public education, higher education and church music -- all while being a nationally recognized and best-selling composer," Steve Shanley of Marion wrote via email. A fellow composer and arranger, as well as a Coe College music professor and  director of the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band, Shanley was in high school when he met Koepke.

"I very distinctly remember Allen giving a clinic to our jazz choir in a classroom at Jefferson High School. Even as a naive teenager, I was awestruck at his ability to transform us into a much better group after only 15 minutes. A few years later I sat behind him in the Paramount while the Cedar Rapids Symphony performed one of his pieces, and I marveled how someone could be both an excellent teacher and such an accomplished composer," Shanley said.

"As I learned more about his legacy and impact on music and music education, he became my role model as a teacher, performer and composer."

Those sentiments are echoed by other colleagues who also called him friend -- Bob Anderson, director of choral activities at Linn-Mar High School in Marion; Pete Eklund, music professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Jim Kimmel of Franklin, Tenn., who served as choral director at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids when Koekpe was across town at Jefferson.

All cited his attention to lyrics, in addition to the musical structure.

"In our world, that's somewhat rare," Eklund said. He came to Jefferson High School a couple of years after Koepke left. Eklund is expecially proud that one of his Nebraska students is doing his doctoral dissertation on Koepke.

Koepke's marriage of music and text continues to influence Linn-Mar's Anderson.

"Whenever I look at a piece of music now, I begin from the strength of the text, more than I ever had anywhere else," Anderson said, who cites Koepke as a mentor as well as friend. He encouraged Anderson to apply for the Linn-Mar job, then later, encouraged him to take his high school choirs overseas, a tradition that continues.

Kimmel, professor emeritus from Belmont University in Nashville, said Koepke was "a tireless advocate for music excellence and musical diversity" at Jefferson High School.

"The powerful impact of his work at each career destination – high school, college and church music – are admired by those of us in the choral music community," Kimmel said.

A man of great faith, he nonetheless had an artistic temperament and expected the best efforts of his church singers, said the Rev. Jonathan Swenson of Marion, former director of worship arts at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Marion, where Koepke's funeral will be held Saturday morning, Sept. 29. (See obituary)

"The word I will always associate with him is 'passion,' " Swenson said. "Musical expertise, heart, drive. There's that value of excellence that's so important, and in church work, I believe excellence honors God. Not perfection -- God doesn't demand perfection. Allen probably shot for perfection more often than not, and he'd get pretty close to it."

Services:

Friends are invited to sing a Koepke piece during Saturday's funeral, which begins at 11 a.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Faith and Life Center, 8300 C Ave. NE, Marion. Rehearsal will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday at the church, following the visitation.

 

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