The journey to Washington actually started with Sen. Lamar Alexander and a phone call last October to Dr. Paul Conn, president of Lee University, asking whether school singers would be interested in performing at the upcoming inauguration. It was reported that Alexander told Conn he had 24 hours to get back to him with an answer.
No, no, no, Dr. Paul Conn told Alexander, we don’t need 24 hours. We accept Lee’s president answered Alexander immediately.
The official letter arrived a few days later.
Paul Conn kept the information “under wraps,” Strong said, until around the first of November. Various meetings and media events came soon after, from making the initial announcement — being kept very hush hush — to updating the public, the school, and the media on continued events.
There was a really “big buzz” created, especially on social media — probably greater than Lee University has experienced on this national, maybe even global, stage. Media contact and coverage from local to national media inundated Lee University.
A working committee was formed. Close coordination with the Joint Congressional Committee on the Inauguration was kept.
One of the first actions that needed to be taken, Brian Conn said, was assembling the choir that was ultimately to be part of this historic event.
Dr. Bill Green, dean of the school of music, was to lead the choir. It was decided to limit the size of the choir to around 200 singers — out of more than 300 singers from Lee groups — and that the newly named Lee Festival Choir would consist of members of all seven of the main choirs and ensembles on Lee’s campus.
“Lee University has seven choirs and a bunch of other musical ensembles,” Brian Conn pointed out. Many outside of the Lee University campus might be unaware of this fact, he added, because, at the time, it was erroneously reported that only the one group, Voices of Lee, was going to sing.
“We still didn’t know who would be president at the time,” Brian Conn said.
Strong was asked to be in charge of logistics. He had several tasks, the main ones being securing a place for the choir to stay, meals, transportation and special clothing. A pea coat and scarf, as well as stocking caps bearing the name Lee, were chosen as the uniform for all to wear at the historic event. A couple of trips were required to check out accommodations and food services before the actual January trip, Strong said.
The first official rehearsal, after the final choir roster was settled, was held in early December, right before final exams.
Twenty alternates were chosen in addition to the main core of 200 singers.
A sizing party also was held around this same time to make sure enough coats were available and they were all in the right sizes.
January began an intense schedule of rehearsals and finalizing preparations and arrangements.
All of the singers were to practice and memorize the planned music program over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday break. Ultimately, the total number of the Lee Festival Choir got down to 200 naturally without having to cut some of the singers arbitrarily.
“It happened on its own,” Brian Conn said.
The last rehearsal occurred in Cleveland on Jan. 17, but a preview for the community was provided by the Lee Festival Choir a couple of days before.
“It was getting pretty exciting,” Brian Conn said. “On Jan. 18, we rolled out of town.”
And, in addition to his duties for this event, Brian served as the official journaler and photographer for the Cleveland Daily Banner.
As would be expected, there was heavy security everywhere in Washington, D.C., including having Lee University officials and choir members provide detailed information, including biography information, on all involved and attending the event.
The sound check in Washington, D.C., happened the Sunday before the inauguration.
Buses with the Lee Festival Choir were scheduled to leave for the Capitol at 5:15 a.m. that Monday morning on the 21st of January for the choir’s schedule performance time of 9:45 a.m. that day, right after Alexander was to speak at the event. Lee students were told to be ready and on the buses by 5:15 a.m., Brian Conn said.
But, by 5:05 a.m., the buses pulled out early. Everyone was aboard already, Brian Conn said.
“Nobody was going to miss this moment,” Brian Conn said, remembering back.
At the inauguration ceremony itself, “We had great seats and a great view where the choir was assigned,” Strong said. “We could see all the festivities, the crowds.”
“This isn’t about politics. It’s about patriotism,” Brian Conn said. “It was a really big deal.”