A cascade of gratitude and well-wishes washed over him on Facebook like applause for one of his vocal ensemble’s concerts.
Choir director Ken Hauan had just announced on Facebook his retirement after 26 years at Columbus East High School, effective at the end of the school year. His intention was to reminisce through 36 total years of teaching and highlight his own thankfulness.
Instead, his followers, from parents to former students, extended their own gratitude to him.
“I really did not know it would get that kind of response,” Hauan said, clearly humbled.
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And there is a big reason for that for the Minnesota native.
“This (career) is not about me,” he said in his office at the school. “Besides, I’ve always liked for my work to speak for itself.
“My being here is about the students. This is their time to shine.”
They have done precisely that during his tenure, winning the state choral title in 1993 and finishing as runner-up the following year. Plus, his 1995 New Sensation show choir earned the honor of performing at New York City’s fabled Carnegie Hall. A framed photo of that moment rests behind him on his desk. He reached for it and reminisced.
“It was such a thrill to conduct my students on that stage,” he said. “Afterward, standing in the wings, I thought, ‘What do we do next?'”
After a recent area show choir competition, his feelings for his students spilled onto his Facebook page.
“It really is a second family,” he said of his choir. “We might not always like each other, but the love never goes away.”
His singers feel the same way.
Some of them have been under his guidance since they were seventh-graders at Central Middle School, where he also teaches a few classes.
“He’s not just our teacher,” said East senior and choir member Jacob Anderson, lauding Hauan for reaching students on a personal level. “He’s more like a parent-friend.”
Anderson credits Hauan with giving him the tools to direct a fourth- through sixth-grade Smith Elementary School choir that the student recently began guiding.
Mark Newell, East’s principal over the past nine years, said he holds considerable respect for Hauan’s longevity and “all the time and energy he’s poured into our (choral) program. And he has had an impact on hundreds and hundreds of students coming through East.”
Those include people making a considerable mark in the arts.
That ranges from sisters Marja and Chasten Harmon, now seen on Broadway and in movies, to Phil Bond, who has worked as a New York City theater director and producer.
“To me, a teacher’s success is much more than maybe seeing a student starring on Broadway,” Hauan said. “I have seen a lot of students singing in choir, and they are kids who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else.”
Giving them a comfortable place to create, thrive and find affirmation and joy amid music remains as significant as maybe anything else to the veteran teacher. Besides, Hauan said he knew even in middle school that “I was put on this earth to teach.”
Away from the classroom, the music man — one choosy enough to prefer listening to classical composers such as Gustav Mahler to unwind — lets disco tunes drive his weightlifting workouts, one of his passions in recent years.
“Disco in the weight room keeps my energy level up,” he said.
When he leaves school for the last time, he will head to a cabin in the woods near Wheeling, West Virginia. There, he will live a week literally off the grid.
“And I really don’t know what’s coming after that,” he said.
He credits former East theater teacher Ray Le Blanc with offering wisdom about when retirement feels right and timely. But he acknowledged that, by May, goodbyes and final moments may be bittersweet.
Anderson considered Hauan’s impact on him and many of his peers just the past few years alone. And then he agreed that “The Awakening,” the Joseph M. Martin song they will croon at their final concert, applies all too well to their instructor’s imparted inspiration. In part, near the end, the lyrics read:
Wherever emptiness is found,
Let there be joy and glorious sound.
Let music never die in me.
Forever let my spirit sing.
Hometown: Dassel, Minnesota
Role: Choir director and vocal music teacher since 1991 at Columbus East High School
Education: Bachelor of Music, 1981, from Bemidji State University in Minnesota. Master of Vocal Music performance, 1990, Indiana University.
Final choral concert: 7 p.m. May 23 at East’s Clarence E. Robbins Auditorium.