Smile Politely

Mr. Decker’s musical legacy

Mr. Donald M. Decker taught music in Champaign for over thirty years. Many people in town and around the world now remember him with love for his friendship and musical guidance. Participants from his choirs, musicals, madrigal dinners, and more have his name on the tips of their tongues, literally, when they sing or make other kinds of music in their lives, even though he died in Champaign in 1999.

Jodi Matthis Prosser was a student of Decker’s in the Champaign Central High School choirs in the early 1980’s. Now she resides in the C-U area and is the director of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, and she teaches private voice lessons there. She is also the Director of the Christian Arts Program at St. Peters, which is a series of music and theater camps for children and teens. In addition, Prosser has her own theater company, Good and Brave Productions, which performs a madrigal dinner each year where she is the music and stage director for the 12th Night Madrigal Feast. Besides her own permanent musical positions and companies, Prosser also acts and directs for various local theater groups. Jodi writes:

Mr. Decker was my director, my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. I think about him every time I sing, every time I act, every time I direct. He is never far from me. I loved and respected him. I still use many of his warm-ups, games and lessons, and often tell stories about him. My love and passion for music were nurtured by his very capable hands.

Decker not only nurtured future music professionals, he encouraged singers and musicians at any level, and he loved to bring their voices alive and smiles to their faces. One of Decker’s choirs was his ongoing Community United Church of Christ choir in Champaign where members still talk about him today, fifteen years after his death. Linda Vaughn, the current organist at the church says, “certain pieces of music remind me of Don. I think how would he do this. How would he do that with his singing methods.” In addition, Vaughn remembers a splendid coat Decker had made for the musical, Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. She says it is still worn by actors at the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company where it is kept with great care, pride, and happiness.

Caryl Henkel of the Community United Church of Christ Choir remembers how “everything he did had some connection to something [she] was in in C-U.”  She taught at Centennial High School and says Decker was not only involved there, but he was a major part of the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company, especially with the costuming. 

Like everyone, Henkel was sad when Decker passed away from cancer in his mid-sixties, just after Champaign Central High School built and dedicated their new Decker Theater building in time for him to be part of the celebration in 1999. Decker says, “it was amazing that he was active at the age he was when he was ill and he kept going until Thanksgiving and did not come back after that.” A month later he died in the hospital, where people remember Decker getting a doctor, who insisted he could not sing, to sing by his bedside. Decker believed in everyone’s talents.

I remember being in every single activity possible of Decker’s from 1979 -1982.  Senior year I could not get enough of his teaching: I was in his Central High School Concert Choir, Madrigals, musical The Boyfriend, music theory class, private voice lessons with him, his church choir (where he often gave me solos to sing with my wispy, high-school voice,) and he even personally drove me to regional competitions and all-state in his car on weekends because I had no other way to get to the towns outside of C-U. Decker really cared about people, and everyone who knew him remembers him and feels his presence still.

Linda Vaughn of the Community United Church of Christ Choir says, “making music with Don never seemed like work. He gave us a wonderful variety of music from every genre.” Indeed, other members of the church choir today, like David Willcox, laugh when they remember the fun Madrigal dinners Decker directed and acted in himself. Willcox said he enjoyed singing “Men in Tights”, a song from the musical Robin Hood.

Another current member of the Community United Church of Christ, Anne Cook, says she came into the choir because of Decker many years ago. She says Decker drafted her teenage twins to sing a duet at Central High School. The twins, Sarah and Elisabeth, enjoyed singing the duet under Decker’s direction so much that they informed Anne, their mother, that they were joining his church choir and that she could come to church choir or not, whatever she wanted to do. Anne says she joined the choir to be with her daughters. Now Sarah sings with the Angeles Choir at UCLA and Elisabeth sings with the Washington D.C. Capital Hill Choral. With a daughter now on each coast, Anne remains in the Midwest in C-U, and she still sings in the Community United Church of Christ Choir even though her children are long gone away from the nest.

Community United Church of Christ members can all picture Decker’s funeral the day before Christmas Eve in the church in 1999. They describe it as standing room only at the back of the church, he had touched so many people’s lives. Today, there is a park memorial for him in Mattis Park in Champaign.  It is a huge wooden piano built into the ground with a beautiful stone of remembrance for him on the ground above it. Decker had even found time to be a master gardener, and the memorial is surrounded by large groups of well-cared-for, Champaign Park District flowers, near the bike paths, lake, and bridges in the lovely park.

His memorial in Mattis park is the only one for him here in C-U. He influenced many local residents and their children for life through his musical legacy in Chamapaign-Urbana. Chris Antonsen, a literature teacher at Countryside Middle School in Champaign, writes eloquently about the love he and so many people feel for Mr. Decker:

Mr. Decker was for me what I know he was for many others who now live across the country and elsewhere in the world: He was just the right person to share art and beauty with teenagers and to demonstrate kindness and humility, humor and generosity. As high schoolers in choir, we were beginning to shape our adult perceptions of the bigger world around us, and Mr. Decker helped to show us how textured these things could be. I know that countless fortunate people everywhere have had a central figure like that who was there at exactly the most crucial time. Those of us who knew Mr. Decker are not unique in this way. But Mr. Decker was ours, the one who influenced us together. We were kids, juvenile in behavior at (too Many) times and somber and appreciative at others.  Mr. Decker nurtured and protected and coaxed us through all those moods and over many hurdles.  I say this with no drama or exaggeration, and I have thought of it often; Mr. Decker was an important person in my life whom I remember; he became part of my life as essential as the two or three inches I grew during high school. Any measure of me includes some of him. I wish he were present to hear that. I think he knew, though, how important he was to me and the others.

I remember Mr. Decker’s height. (He was a big guy, a comforting presence for an uncertain freshman.) I miss Mr. Decker’s voice when he modeled phrases to sing. I recall his silly phrases — like “dim bulbs,” which was the harshest thing I ever heard him call someone who was destructive. I chuckle at the way he would fold his arms and stick one arm of his glasses into his mouth, thoughtfully, for effect when wrestling with some passing problem. I savor memory of the warmth and comfort of the choral rehearsal room with its clutter and banged-up piano. I am grateful for being invited into his living room on Saturday mornings to learn and practice pieces for contests or other special opportunities. I treasure the musicals which were sometimes warty and awkward but always charming and gorgeously perfect in their affects on my friends and me. Most of all, I appreciate the electric mix of music, ideas, interactions, lively work and play, and friendship Mr. Decker promoted.

Today, I can honestly say that my life, my choices, my opportunities, and my joys would be vastly different had I not been fortunate enough to have Mr. Decker as a music teacher in high school. My wife, Robin, and I met in his presence, and our own children are now growing up in Champaign with music in their lives. The arrows of these things point magnetically back to Mr. Decker.  

More Articles