Kenosha bade farewell today to one of its true giants, Ralph Houghton – the man more responsible than anybody for making the nationally-acclaimed music program in the Kenosha public schools what it is today. But those words do not begin to convey what this man meant to this community – and to all who worked with him and for him – and to me. In fact, I’m not sure I ever admired anyone more than I admired Ralph Houghton – and in the company of great people I have had the privilege of knowing, that is really saying something. But he was just an extraordinary guy who came in an entirely ordinary package. His son David told us in his eulogy that Ralph only stood five feet six inches tall, but nonetheless was nicknamed the Big Guy – because he was an awesome figure in so many ways and someone not afraid to go after very big dreams. And for as intelligent and well-read as Ralph was, he was also so very warm and approachable and normal. I loved how he could talk about the music of Igor Stravinsky in one breath, and before you knew it he could shift effortlessly into a discussion of barbershop. I am sure that I have never known anyone with farther-reaching appreciation of music – or someone so cultured yet down-to-earth, which made him the perfect guy to bring public school excellence to beer ‘n’ brats Kenosha.
And what I admired even more about Ralph is how well he knew people. He just had this amazing knack for knowing what made a given person tick and how to get the best out of them. I saw this over the course of many years as I emceed the summertime programs at the Pennoyer Park Bandshell. Ralph was the chairman of the steering committee and the man responsible for booking the various acts that would appear there. When I would walk up to the backstage area each Thursday night, Ralph would be there with plenty of information about the act I was to introduce – plus interesting little tidbits that he thought would be good to include . . . but what I really enjoyed was his acute ability to size people up and discern what made them tick even after having just met them. So-and-so, he might say, is a little bit high-strung and a little bit bossy, so just remind them firmly about the time limit. OR So-and-so is young and a bit inexperienced, and this venue is a little bit overwhelming for them, so anything you can do to keep them calm would be very helpful. His assessments were always right on the money – and I know this ability was exceedingly important when it came to hiring teachers for the school district and for finding ways to get the very best out of them.
What was especially wonderful about Ralph is that he didn’t want anything to be about him. When he was working for the school district, it was all about the kids . . . not about accolades and trophies and national reputation. It was about doing whatever had to be done to give the students the best possible musical experiences they could possibly have. . . and the fact that Ralph made certain it was not about him is the main reason why the excellence he helped create remained in place as Larry Simon followed him . . .and is still there under the leadership of the current fine arts coordinator, Bob Wells. If all of this had been the Ralph Hougton Show, then it would have begun to fade the day he retired. But Ralph was so quick to deflect the praise to others- and especially to the fine teachers which he hired. (He told me in our last morning show interview that his main criterion for hiring teachers was that they needed to be “excellent” and “unselfish.” I love that.) And the truth is that the excellence really is created and fostered by the teachers- but Ralph is the one who got all of this rolling by bringing in such exemplary educators who set the bar mighty high for everyone who has followed after them. At any rate, Ralph was never comfortable to receive much in the way of praise, but the truth is that he deserved every ounce of credit and then some. . . because it was that all too rare combination of Superb Skill and Profound Humility that made him such a unique and successful figure.
His funeral today was extraordinary – and amongst the congregation gathered at St. Mary’s Catholic Church were two state representatives, a state senator, three past superintendents, the owner of the local newspaper,, several former and present music profs at Carthage, and a plethora of teachers from the school district. In fact, almost all of the music for the service was provided by a small group of teachers which Ralph hired for the school district – most of whom are now retired but living legends in their respective fields. Just to see all of them together in one choir loft was rather awe-inspiring. . . the musical equivalent of the U.S.A. All-Stars Men’s Basketball Team at the Olympics. And after the mass was concluded, Ralph was eulogized by his son David, who did an incredible job of summarizing what made his father such a wonderful person. David said that there was no need to trot out a long list of his dad’s accomplishments, so he chose instead to talk about the things his dad believed in. Top of the list (and I wasn’t surprised) was He Believed in God – and spent time on his knees in prayer every night before going to bed – and David said that his dad’s deep Christian faith sustained him through the trauma of being a POW in the waning days of World War II. . . as well as the challenges of raising five kids. After the laughter from that line died done, Dave said that his father had once said that he didn’t want the sermon at his funeral to be too maudlin, and indeed the eulogy turned out to be just the right mix of gladness and sadness. David also told a funny story about how tough it was for Ralph and his wife to get the kids ready in time for church on Sunday . . . so they would almost always be running terribly late, which often meant that Ralph was forced to park his car beside the fire hydrant at the front of the building, which would cause his family to urge him to find a space someplace else where there weren’t warnings about towing posted. But Ralph always had the same answer: No respectable policeman is going to ticket a man for parking his car in order to bring his family to church. And true to his word, he never was given so much as a single parking ticket. Like I said, Ralph knew people. And if anyone loved him more than his teachers and students and regular people did, it was his wife and five children – all of whom knew they were tremendously blessed to have Ralph as their dad / husband.
Here’s a closing thought on one of Ralph’s most essential qualities. . . which David mentioned and described so beautifully . . . Ralph had this uncanny ability to make anyone he was speaking to feel incredibly special. And if there is a single quality in Ralph Houghton which I try to emulate in my own life, it is that same idea of making others feel special. It takes patience and selflessness – plus a gift for looking beneath the surface when a given person’s greatest goodness is not readily apparent . . . qualities which I am still trying to foster and nurture in myself. I do okay in this regard, but I don’t come anywhere near to Ralph’s standard. (To borrow a football analogy, when it comes to this particular quality, he’s John Elway and the rest of us are Tucker Frederickson.) But I am thankful that he set the bar as high as he did, and I feel like I will spend the rest of my life trying to reach that bar – probably in vain, but I will try all the same. We all will – all of us who were privileged to know this great man and to be inspired by his example.
pictured above: this beautiful portrait of Ralph, done by the late Kenosha artist George Pollard, was on display at Ralph’s visitation. By the time I moved to Kenosha in 1986, Ralph had retired from teaching and conducting – so I never ever saw him in a tuxedo, and this portrait in that respect is not how I remember him. But the smile on his face is exactly right. By the way, one of Ralph’s claims to fame is that he organized the gigantic Band-O-Rama event which features all of the middle school and high school bands joining together in one mighty joint ensemble. (You can’t imagine how thrilling that sound is when all of those young gifted musicians join forces.) At the first Band-O-Rama over fifty years ago, Ralph made sure that the final piece played was Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” And today as Ralph’s casket was carried out of the sanctuary at the end of the service, a recording of Stars and Stripes Forever was played. And it was absolutely, utterly, completely perfect.
* * * On Monday, I am replaying my last morning show interview with Ralph Houghton. In it, he recounts the story of his long and distinguished career in education – and so much of what made him a great person shines through. Listen if you can . . . live Monday morning, 8:10- 9:00 – or after that via our morning show archive on our website, which is wgtd.org.