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The Conductor’s Coda: FHU celebrates the musical legacy of Dr. Gary McKnight

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In a poignant farewell filled with music and memories, scores of former Sonshine Singers and Chorale members gathered at the Henderson Church of Christ to mark Dr. Gary McKnight’s retirement. The risers were brimming as both past and present group members united to sing their traditional closing song, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” one final time. This touching moment not only celebrated the end of Dr. McKnight’s illustrious 34-year tenure at Freed-Hardeman University but also underscored his profound connection with students spanning generations.
“Dr. McKnight’s tenure has upheld the longstanding legacy of FHU choral excellence, which was established over seven decades ago,” said Dr. C.J. Vires, FHU provost and vice president for academics. “His impact on the program and the numerous students he mentored will be enduring. Under his guidance, the University Chorale flourished, showcasing exceptional talent and professionalism in every performance.”
McKnight first began his tenure at FHU as an admissions representative in 1990. Three years later, he was named director of the Sonshine Singers, and in 2004 he became the first director of the newly established University Chorale. In the classroom, he taught courses ranging from academic career development to music theory, music appreciation, sight singing and ear training, voice and song leading. He also taught conducting for 25 years. 
Former student and chorus member LeAnne (Estes) Jones (’05), now a private music teacher in Booneville, Mississippi, credits McKnight with much of her positive foundational training. “He taught me so much as both a musician and a person,” she said. “All the classes in college are important but there was nothing better for my voice, musical ear and practical knowledge of how to be a director than singing with him for that hour after chapel five days a week.” 
In addition to his classroom and choral responsibilities, McKnight acted as musical director – and occasional actor – for several Homecoming stage musicals, including “Camelot,” “Oklahoma,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Guys and Dolls” and many others. He has also made several scene-stealing appearances in club Makin’ Music shows over the years. 
Under his leadership, the University Chorale became a frequent participant in the Christian College Choral Festival, allowing his students to blend with hundreds of other singers from Christian colleges and universities across the country. Several of his students have also auditioned and been accepted into the Young Adult Honors Choir at Carnegie Hall, giving them the opportunity to work with world renowned directors and conductors. A select few were even invited to sing at the famous Sydney Opera House in Australia. 
Among those who have performed in McKnight’s choral groups, frequently cited favorite memories tend to involve time spent traveling together, whether it be to neighboring churches, distant states or foreign countries. His singing groups have performed in most U.S. states east of the Mississippi River and have traveled as far west as Texas. Internationally, he has led groups to at least nine countries on six different continents, often offering their singing performances in conjunction with other mission outreach efforts for local congregations. 
With hours of bus rides and the adventurous unpredictability of travel, such long tours naturally produced strong relationships and plenty of inside jokes. These are the times that are recounted most vividly when former members reunite.
“The times I spent with the group were tremendous,” McKnight said. “For some of these kids, it was their first time traveling anywhere. I loved being able to see the world open up to them when they got away from school. They learned about life, about themselves and about the way they interact with the world. These kinds of experiences are the best classroom you can have.”
His connection to his “kids” is evident in the fact that he has performed over 30 wedding ceremonies for students who first met in his group. To them, he is considered so much more than a director. He has helped to guide them through some of the most formidable times of their lives. 
Riley Bowers (’14), of Springfield, Tennessee, worked closely with McKnight in his role as the Chorale student conductor during his time. “Gary has often said ‘Cologne is to be discovered, not announced.’ That holds true in his life as well. I learned patience, kindness, hard work, and so many other things from him not because he pushed those lessons on me but because I saw them being lived quietly in his life every day,” Bowers said. 
“Freed-Hardeman gave me the opportunity to direct a chorus at a tremendous Christian university,” McKnight said. “In the course of 34 years, that job has allowed Rosemary and me to literally travel all over the world while directing and interacting with the finest young people anywhere. It has been the dream of a lifetime. I can’t imagine a better job anywhere. All of those memories will last us a lifetime. We have truly been blessed.”  
The mission of Freed-Hardeman University is to help students develop their God-given talents for His glory by empowering them with an education that integrates Christian faith, scholarship and service. With locations in Henderson and Memphis, FHU offers associate, bachelor’s, master’s, specialist and doctoral degrees. More information is available at fhu.edu.

Dr. McKnight and his wife Rosemary stand with members of FHU’s University Chorale.

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