Birder’s legacy lives on at St. Norbert and beyond
Colleagues and friends remember beloved choral conductor
By Janelle Fisher
City Pages Editor
Northeast Wisconsin’s “Music Man,” Dudley Birder, passed away late last month at the age of 95, leaving behind a decades-long legacy at St. Norbert College and in the community as a whole.
Birder served as artistic director of music theatre at St. Norbert College from 1961-2017, during which time he touched the lives of many of his students and colleagues and even had a building and chorale named after him.
Kent Paulsen, who took over for Birder after his retirement, said his relationship with Birder actually began many years prior.
“I met Dudley in 1995 when I was relatively new in town,” he said. “I auditioned for a musical that they were doing at St. Norbert and I didn’t get in. But I found out later that they were only looking for one part because they had done it the year before and that part needed to be a dancing role. And so then the next summer Dudley called me up and said ‘We were hoping you’d come and audition for The King and I. There’s a part for you that I think you might do really well with and there’s no dancing required.’”
From there, Paulsen said he and Birder continued to grow closer, both professionally and personally.
“I became his accompanist in 2000, maybe 1999,” he said. “I started doing summer musicals with them and then accompanied the chorale and then became his assistant director. And then when he finally retired — for the second or third time — I took over the chorale and music theater in 2018. Like he did for a lot of people, he started out as a director to me, and then as a mentor, then as a colleague, then as a friend and then just kind of became a dear friend to me.”
In all the time he knew him, Paulsen said Birder’s excitement and passion for what he was doing never wavered.
“I worked with him for more than 20 years, which means I met him and he was in his 70s,” he said. “And even near the end of his career, there were times where he had more energy than I did. He had all this energy, and I think part of the source of that was that he just loved what he was doing so much.”
And Paulsen said that passion did not go unnoticed by others who knew Birder.
“That was the thing I think everyone could recognize,” he said. “He had this sort of unboundless passion and excitement, even if he did something we had done a hundred times before. He just had this authentic exuberance for people singing and getting together and doing shows.”
Paulsen said Birder would get just as excited about everyday things as he did major accomplishments.
“We just did a big concert that he had started over 20 years ago out of the Weidner for Holiday Pops, and even in his 80s, he had a glimmer and twinkle and excitement for Christmas that looked like most eight or ten year olds,” Paulsen said. “He was excited about people stopping in his office and saying hello or swapping jokes or going out after rehearsal or the post-concert gatherings and the stories that were told. Years later, he would tell a lot of stories and he got just as excited about telling those stories as he did about conducting at Carnegie Hall.”
That passion and ability to make every moment feel special is something Paulsen says he will keep with him now that Birder has passed.
“He had this insanely enviable ability to take people that weren’t necessarily very good at things and make them much better and feel valued and important while they were doing it,” he said. “And I think [he taught me] to look for how to love what you do every day and to come to work and go to rehearsal and go to a show with such optimism and to believe that if you put in the time and the work and really dig into the details, good things will come from that.”
Pat Wood, who was family friends with Birder and his family and later studied under Birder at St. Norbert, said Birder was effortlessly inspirational and improved those around him through his genuine support.
“A lot of people are driven, and in this world sometimes people feel they have to be,” Wood said. “But he was inspirational without having to try. You found the forces inside yourself because he believed in you.”
Having spent so many years working at St. Norbert, Paulsen said Birder’s legacy extends into the lives of former students and all those who worked with him.
“The legacy of the past is seen in the number of alumni and their outpouring of support and love and memories,” he said. “It’s in the naming of the Dudley Birder Hall and the Dudley Birder Chorale. The legacy is in the thousands of people that he worked with and that just had the experience of loving what they did alongside Dudley because they knew that he loved it.”
Wood added that a true testament of how much Birder was loved and appreciated in his community is the fact that his legacy began even before he was gone.
“It’s kind of unique that he was around to see his own legacy,” Wood said. “Van Gogh might have sold one piece of art in his lifetime and Herman Melville died a pauper, and they had given their gifts and never had the chance to see how greatly they were received because it wasn’t in their lifetime. For Dudley, he was able to be a part of it while he was still alive and very few people have that experience. And I think it probably enriched his life so much knowing that he was so well regarded and appreciated.”
Paulsen said that even in his final days, Birder’s excitement and passion for his work and the people he worked with still shone through.
“When I visited him just before he passed, he had forgotten that there was a building named for him,” he said. “But he didn’t forget any of the people that were coming to see him or that were his friends or his family. So that’s kind of an interesting perspective because you think you know how important it is to have a building named after you or have things named after you, but at the end of his life it was the memories of all the friends and making music together that he still remembered and enjoyed.”