The twinkle in his eye that displayed an almost childlike zeal. The trademark skip when ascending the director’s platform. The genuine love and loyalty like an overgrown Labrador retriever. The constant pursuit to achieve excellence and impact lives with his unrelenting optimism.
Those were some of the things that stood out to me over the course of nearly four decades in knowing Dr. Glenn Draper. In my mind, he was supposed to live forever because it seemed he never aged and had too many goals still to conquer.
He always assumed his best years were still ahead of him, too busy squeezing every ounce out of this life pondering dreams he still wanted to accomplish. There were surely plans for his next concert cavorting in his mind, possibly another round of recordings and memories aplenty still awaiting to be made with his adoring family.
He knew only one speed – in life and behind the wheel of a car – and both involved burying the gas pedal against the floorboard. His dynamic personality and burning passion to minister to others through music drove him to the pinnacle of his profession as a choral conductor. Yet, he was never satisfied with resting on his accomplished resume’. There were always more places to see, more lives to impact and more stories to be told through his music.
Sadly, Dr. Draper’s journey came to an end last Saturday when he died just a few weeks shy of his 91st birthday. But rest assured – the music didn’t end with his death. It will resonate in the legacy of the countless lives who were impacted by his relentless pursuit to bring honor to His Lord and joy to the lives of millions of listeners through his incomparable music.
His legacy will be honored on Saturday at 1 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church in a Celebration of Life service to be followed by a reception. The family will receive friends at Heritage Funeral Home at 7454 E. Brainerd Road from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. on Friday.
Dr. Draper’s life journey took him to lofty heights from his humble beginnings in Roanoke, Virginia. He rubbed shoulders with ambassadors, celebrities and U.S. Presidents. His choirs performed on some of the grandest stages on the planet. He was honored and recognized too many times to count for his contribution to choral music. But he was never impressed with himself. He knew that resting on his considerable laurels would indicate he had reached the uncomfortable place of being satisfied.
Even after laying down his baton after six decades of leading choirs – starting with the formation of the Keesler Air Force Base Male Chorus in 1952, followed by stops at Pfeiffer College in North Carolina and the University of Miami before finally arriving in Chattanooga in 1968 where he conducted the choral activities for UTC and First Presbyterian Church and spent summers leading the music Lake Junaluska in North Carolina - and completing close to 50 international tours, Dr. Draper’s indomitable spirit continued to shape lives.
He pressed onward, pouring his energy into his two sons, Glenn and Dean, and their wives along with his eight grandchildren. He was the quintessential father and grandfather, shaping their lives through his principled character and his persistent adoration that convinced each one they could accomplish anything with a right relationship with God and with Dr. Draper serving as their perpetual cheerleader.
His beloved wife of 63 years, Lounelle, was the love of his life. Their storybook marriage where she quietly supported her husband’s whirlwind career while holding down the fort at home was the true anchor to Dr. Draper’s success. She always demonstrated refined elegance, and he was constantly gushing like a newlywed how blessed he was to have her as his partner throughout his incredible journey.
After spending a few minutes with Dr. Draper and getting absorbed in the wake of his hearty laughter and infectious enthusiasm, you always left with a pep in your step and a more positive outlook on life. He had a way of helping you view your problems as opportunities, making you believe you could conquer the world with his words of praise.
He loved sports and was indeed a competitor, always a fixture at UTC football and basketball games for years. He was a staunch Dallas Cowboys fan, revering the firm but fair leadership of the late coach Tom Landry when he was in charge of the organization. The same enthusiasm he demonstrated in the choral rehearsal room was on display when cheering for his teams.
Dr. Draper was more than simply a choral conductor. He took on the role of a coach in the lives of students and choir members he encountered. He had a vision for their potential, and would challenge and encourage each one to surpass their own expectations, buoyed by the dreams he had for their future that became a reality in many instances.
The glass was never half-full when Dr. Draper was involved. It was always overflowing with anticipation and optimism, never allowing room for naysayers to dampen his spirits. His joy was centered on the hope he found in the Gospel, and he viewed himself as an ambassador to share that good news with as many as possible through his gift of music.
He could be demanding at times, driven by the passion to be excellent for the purpose of glorifying his Savior. But his singers never doubted the fact that, at his core, everything he did was ultimately rooted in his love for each member.
I had the privilege to know him through my friendship with his namesake son when we both attended UTC and worked at the News-Free Press in the early 1980s. Even though I never had the ability to warrant being selected to sing in his talented choral groups, he allowed me to have a seat in his annual Chattanooga Christmas concert where my vocal faux pas would be drowned out by the all-star singers surrounding me. He encouraged me to be a part of his “team”, sharing in the experience of something much bigger than myself where I would stand in worshipful awe, often moved to tears, as we celebrated the true meaning of Christmas.
He also allowed me to join his entourage during two memorable trips to the White House where I tagged along as a “reporter” to chronicle the events for the local newspaper. I will never forget witnessing the regal presence of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan in 1988 during the final weeks of his second term as Dr. Draper’s singers entertained dignitaries and guests, and having the opportunity to meet President George H.W. Bush the next year.
In short, Dr. Draper took me and others places we could have otherwise never experienced or imagined. He became a father-figure to many souls searching for someone to believe in them, never allowing one’s past to cloud the dreams he had for their future. He approached every day with a childlike fascination, always eager to explore with zeal new relationships and to share warm memories with those from his past.
He seemed invincible, even after a heart procedure several years ago took some of the starch out of his step. But eventually, his physical setbacks from the past months took their toll last weekend, leaving a void in this world and in the lives of many.
His legacy will not be measured by his contributions to music, his tours around the globe, or his lengthy tenures at the various stops along his professional path. Instead, his impact will be measured through his undying love for his wife, his devotion to his sons and his grandchildren, and the multitude of lives who were forever changed for the better having crossed paths with Dr. Draper.
But our loss is certainly heaven’s gain. He’s now in the presence of the One who he so dutifully led others to worship through his lifetime of devotion. If there are choirs in heaven, I have no doubt he’s already conducting auditions to assemble the finest voices he can find to praise for eternity the Savior whom he glorified during his years on earth.
Click here for a rare recording from New Orleans radio station that broadcast his Keesler Male Chorus from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1952.
Memorial contributions can be made to First Presbyterian Church World Missions, Changed Lives, The UTC Choral Endowment and the Lake Junaluska Singers. For more information, visit www.heritagechattanooga.com.
To contact Paul Payne, email firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne