- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

PORTAGE, Wis. (AP) - Fred Leist can play almost any instrument, but he’s not one to toot his own horn.

The 97-year-old is a beloved figure in the Oshkosh area for transforming the high school music program to a nationally-recognized platform. Leist directed 49 musicals while at Oshkosh West and was the first inductee to their Music Wall of Fame in 2008.

While recovering from hip surgery, Leist met Kristin Vorpahl, a physical therapist at Tivoli in Portage. Casual conversations about Leist’s 36 years as a director intrigued Vorpahl; her son Alex is in Portage High School’s upcoming musical Beauty and the Beast.

“I remember the statement, ‘I wish it would’ve been 50,’ and then a light bulb went off in my head,” Vorpahl said.

For now, Leist is living with his daughter Sue Wilson in Poynette as he heals. Vorpahl contacted Holly Atkinson, director of choral and musical theater for PHS, to inquire if Leist could be a guest director to reach the 50 mark.

Kristin approached me and I was excited for the opportunity. I said yes because of his experience and knowledge of musical theater, he could really help my students take their performance to the next level just by watching a rehearsal and giving his critique,” Atkinson said.

On March 13, Leist sat in the front row of the PHS auditorium next to Wilson and Vorpahl. Every so often, Wilson would lean in to tell her dad an anecdote about the cast as they watched a dry run of the production.

“They know their lines already, that’s very good,” Leist said. He attended as a guest, but didn’t want to give any criticism because he knew they were in “good hands” with Atkinson.

Wilson, who was once a student in her dad’s class, said he set a high bar for excellence and her peers wanted to reach it.

“The kids love him even today. He gets about 100 Christmas cards from different states, including one who’s an opera singer and others who are musicians,” Wilson said. “He’s like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus.’ He has students who are in their 80s and still write him.”

After the first act, Atkinson asked that Leist come on stage and address the cast and crew. Students stood next to stained glass windows and sat on the castle steps.

“I better get this out of the way first,” he said.

“I’ve got nothing to say but good things.”

During Leist’s career, the elite A Capella Choir from Oshkosh West sang at Madison Square Garden in 1965 for the Kiwanis 50th annual National Convention and the World Fair in New York City. In 1967, the choir had a three-week concert tour in Europe.

“I was interested in music and I was lucky the kids went along,” Leist said.

Vorpahl was impressed by Leist, she said, and later found out she had a family connection as well. His assistant for more than 20 years was Ruth Vorpahl, who is a cousin of Kristin’s father-in-law.

“It was just crazy when I saw her name associated with his name and I thought, it’s all fate,” she said. “Everybody has a story and we don’t always have the chance to learn it.”

The cast and crew shook hands with Leist and thanked him for attending the rehearsal.

“Everybody involved in that production worked, not only the actors and directors, but stage managers, the beautiful stage, beautiful scenery, it was amazing. It was no fooling around, they knew their lines, I was amazed,” he said.

Leist said he looks forward to watching the finished production in the audience.

“It was so much fun,” he said. “When I was teaching I loved every minute of it.”

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