St. Norbert College loses its “Music Man”

The performing arts space at St. Norbert College is quieter, but the chorale that bears his name has an endowment to last forever
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 3:56 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 28, 2022 at 5:45 PM CST
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DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) - The St. Norbert College community is mourning the loss of their very own “Music Man.”

A baby grand piano sits alone on the stage after Dudley Birder passed away over the weekend at the age of 95.

“That kind of was symbolic of Dudley’s presence here. But he’s not,” chorale director Kent Paulsen said.

Birder retired in 2018 after nearly 60 years of serving as a musical fixture in the community.

“He was a great musician, but it was obvious that he just loved performing and working with people, and so when he just had this unbelievable energy,” Paulsen remembered.

An energy he brought with him to campus back in 1958 when he started his career as a professor of music. A few years later, he used that same enthusiasm to start the summer music theater.

Birder told us in a previous interview it was a one-man show: “Building the set, hanging the lights, directing, choreographing, it was all a one-man show. It was the first time.”

And not the last. He went on to direct countless musicals, swinging night performances, and founded a chorale in 1974 which now bears his name that gave singers of all ages in the community a note to sing.

“He directed with his whole body and his whole heart,” Action 2 News This Morning anchor Kathryn Bracho recalled. She sang soprano in the chorale for 5 years.

She remembers his enthusiasm for music.

“When he directed, he could just bring that out in us as a group,” she said, “and it was just a joy to go to rehearsal every week -- and then concerts were a whole other level of just passion and love for music, and there was nothing like singing together and making music as a group, and Dudley knew that.”

While his legacy will live on in the De Pere campus’s performance space and a million-dollar endowment to make sure the Dudley Birder Chorale sings on forever, one of his friends says his legacy will also live on in the people he met along the way during his 95 years on this earth.

“He just had this boundless energy, and he would just draw people in and give them something to do. And he had a way of making the person that moved the tree from the left to the right feel like they were the most important person, you know, and every singer and all that kind of stuff,” Paulsen said.

In an interview with Birder years ago, he thanked the community.

“Without all of my performers and all of my friends and all the people that are interested in the things I was organizing, I would be nothing, so I am indebted to all of you,” Birder said.

In truth, Mr. Music Man, we are indebted to you for filing our hearts with music all of these years.

“He just sort of had that infectious spirit, and I think that legacy is actually probably what’s going to last the longest,” Paulsen said.

“St. Norbert has meant everything to me,” Birder once told us.

A celebration of his life will be held in June.

In two weeks, the lights will dim during the holiday pops concert at the Weidner Center in Birder’s honor.

Dudley Birder's legacy will last many lifetimes