BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A familiar face graced the ever-buzzing rooms of the Fort Madison High School Music Department Thursday night.
With the 30th edition of the FMHS Show Choir Invitational this Saturday, Taylor Stoddard, head of the FMHS vocal music department, reached out to the man that started it all in 1989.
Allen Chapman, who started teaching vocal music at FMHS in 1978 and built what became “SwingSpan”, the competition side of the program, stepped back into the room of risers at the request of Stoddard.
“It’s kind of registered with people this is the 30th year. Taylor wanted Ann, my daughter, and I to be here for their competition and I think they might take a moment during those shows and recognize this is the 30th year and pat us on the head.”
“Taylor called and said he had a couple competitions coming up and asked if I could come in, watch the kids, and give them a couple pointers and do a little cheerleading session with them,” Chapman said.
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In the 80s, Chapman, with his wife Sandy, who taught vocal music at the junior high level, started building a program that could compete with any program in the state….and quite possibly the nation. Sandy died seven years ago.
“I had an ace in a hole… my wife Sandy was brilliant. She was really great getting the 7th and 8th grade kids to look at this and give it a whirl. She was the daughter of a football coach and had grown up around football and baseball practices,” he said, frequently gazing through Stoddard’s office window to the students rehearsing just outside.
“She could speak the jock language really well.”
Chapman, an Ottumwa native, graduated from Ottumwa High School in 1967 and received his music degree in 1971 from Iowa Wesleyan. He stretched that to a master’s degree in voice from Truman State University in 1985.
After leaving Fort Madison in 2003, Chapman worked in different capacities, mostly part-time in the area Catholic system including the former Marquette High School and then Holy Trinity Catholic. He also did stints with Southeastern Community College and Western Illinois University.
Chapman now tours the Midwest and occasionally other parts of the country as a show choir savant of sorts to other school programs, as well as serving as a judge whereever he’s asked.
“I just really enjoy being around young people. Kids are kids and I get so much more from them than they get from me. It’s a very energizing thing to be around 15-,16-, and 17-year olds. They have an energy and enthusiasm that most people my age don’t have,” Chapman said.
In the 80s there were only a handful of competitions in the state and Chapman ushered in the program in Fort Madison and showed the rest of the state what smaller schools were capable of.
He said he was told by a long-time choral director in the state, that he and Sandy single-handedly put state music departments on notice.
“It had not gone on here before. Within two years we started competitions. I was kind of an overachiever,” he said with a chuckle. “One of the best compliments ever given to me was from a long-time choral director in Iowa, who said that San and I were a ‘kick in the pants’ to all high school directors in Iowa.”
With Chapman putting together a string of wins and championships at what competitions there were in and around Iowa, he said the people started sniffing the wind and seeing that invitationals could be a good revenue source for school music programs.
The other big show ticket was the Dinner Theatre. Chapman said that became such a draw that people would actually camp out for tickets.
“Those were a sold out deal, where people would literally camp out on Avenue G through the 80s and 90s waiting for tickets. It was a whole lot of fun to see that happen and I like to think that we were pretty good.”
He said it wasn’t uncommon for the Bloodhounds to dominate at the bigger events, a tradition that wasn’t lost on those bigger school music departments.
“We won our share of contests and we are always on the small side of the schools we competed against…the Des Moines schools, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Davenport schools, we were always one size down from them, but I always chose to not worry about that and just go for it,” he said.
One of his fondest memories is a doll he was given by students from an Iowa City high school.
“I have an Allen Chapman action figure at home that was given to me from Iowa City kids. I’m sure it was some burger chain doll they made to look like me,” Chapman said.
“He was roly poly and holding a hamburger, but they dressed him up like me and it’s just too good to throw away.”
He said the Fort Madison program needs consistency and Stoddard is shaping up to fill that role nicely.
“You can quote me on this. I really enjoy Taylor, I like his energy, his enthusiasm, and I think he’s a special one,” Chapman said.
“I really hope he’ll stay here for a while. Things are moving in a nice direction this year. He’s the fifth high school vocal teacher since I left. I really hope he stays because consistency is really so important in building a successful program.”
In the better half of 60, Chapman says age isn’t a factor in his life. As long as the phone keeps ringing, he keeps answering.
“I’ll know when the time comes that I’ll need to back off,” he said. “When the phone doesn’t ring or I don’t get the invites or the emails, then I’ll know I’m kinda done. But as long as people tell me that I’m still able to engage them and give them some ideas and inspiration…that’s where I’m gonna be.”
Although the requests are paid and Chapman travels the country helping with competitions, be it in an advisory role or as a judge, he said his passion drives him, not others picking up the tab.
“I still really enjoy it,” he said. “It’s not about the money, it’s something that I really enjoy. I’m not a mechanic… and I’m not a gardener. I’m a one trick pony. I’m a decent singer and I can get youngsters to fire up. And I can detail and mean car.”
The annual SwingSpan Show Choir Invitational is set for this Saturday at FMHS. The annual Dinner Theater will take place on March 22, with a Murder Mystery theme. Tickets are on sale at Dana Bushong Jewelry, 805 Avenue G, in Fort Madison.