Three times in Carnegie Hall Peggy Dettwiler, her back to the audience, her face, as always, looking to her choir, conducted her legion, calling forth beautiful music from the soloists, the pianist, the entire choir, with the wave of her hands.
This time, at age seventy, Dettwiler watched this April as renowned New York conductor Rob Fisher summoned the magic of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide from the troops she had prepared for yet another performance in the legendary New York City venue. And the results were just as spectacular.
James Oestreich, the New York Times critic, wrote, “Carnegie Hall’s elaborate concert version of Bernstein’s Candide on Wednesday, celebrating the Bernstein centenary, featured ample star power (John Lithgow, Paul Appleby, Erin Morley, Patricia Racette and William Burden, with cameo appearances by Len Cariou and Marilyn Horne); the typically excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s; and huge, quietly clever projections designed by Wendall K. Harrington. Somewhat overshadowed by all of this was the superb work of the Mansfield University Concert Choir, of Pennsylvania, long directed by Peggy Dettwiler.”
That acclaimed Mansfield University choir director, as a young girl growing up on a northern Illinois farm, whose first music making was at her quaint church, never could have imagined the scope of her ambitions and that they’d actually come true.
As a young woman on the farm, she once climbed up a giant grain silo for no other reason than to catch a particularly interesting pigeon. She tamed hard-to-wrangle horses. She showed horses. Her sister, Vicki Crone, says Dettwiler once waited for Tricksy, a temperamental equine, to bow its head while eating grass so she could then throw her leg over its back and teach it a thing or two about being ridden. In those days, Dettwiler smiled broadly, all teeth, spread across a youthful, vibrant face.
Crone says, “All through school she was an achiever. She ended up president of her class, valedictorian, FHA/FFA sweetheart, involved in lots of cheerleading through the years.”
Training horses growing up, they found the subtle ways to take a hulking body capable of speed and mammalian power and make it bend to the will of its rider, to cede control over to someone far less imposing but no less capable. On the farm, the kids were as free range as the chickens. But roots run deep in the Midwest, such that few people extend much farther than one state in any cardinal direction. “I thought I would graduate from college and I would stay around the Midwest and raise children, and that would be my life. But things didn’t work out that way,” Dettwiler says.
Dettwiler had a musical gene coiled somewhere in her forty-six chromosomes. Her long-time friend, Celia Finestone, thinks it’s the work ethic of Dettwiler’s immigrant parents: her father a farmer, her mother a musician.
Dettwiler moved north to the area near Madison, Wisconsin, where she taught high school music and roomed with Marlys Kerkman, two teachers looking to split the $160 per month in rent. “Peggy has always been motivated to do and to organize, and I can always remember from the time I first knew her the notes of things she was going to do next,” Kerkman says.
Decades later, when Kerkman was in a terrible car accident and laid up in the hospital for about a month, not sure if she was going to lose a leg or not, “Peggy got in a car and came up and visited me,” Kerkman says, crying. “I really appreciated that. She’s well meaning. I thought it was great.”
Decades earlier, Dettwiler had learned what the support of friends meant in a desperate time, so she gave it no thought to get in her car and visit a friend’s bedside.
In 1981, Dettwiller felt a cold coming on, a bad cold, but a cold that by all accounts would be shaken off in a week or two. But this cold not only stuck around, it began eroding her capacity to feel her extremities and move her limbs. This cold quickly stripped her of her power. Soon she was bed ridden and completely paralyzed with a disease called Guillain-Barre (Ghee-YAN Bah-RAY) syndrome, or French polio. With Guillain-Barre, the myelin sheaths that insulate the neurons waste away, making nerve conduction impossible. It can advance so far inward that breathing can become labored or, like walking, also impossible.
“[The doctor] said we may have to help you breathe,” Dettwiler recalls, “which they did by the fifth day in the hospital. I was on a respirator and I was in the ICU. I was completely paralyzed, but I was fully conscious, so I was fully aware. I was on that respirator for three weeks and in the hospital for two months.”
She communicated by blinking at a chart. To sleep, nurses taped her eyelids shut.
While fearful of what the disease could do to her life in the short and long term, she thought about the meaning of her illness and what she would do later, of a future unbound.
“I realized when I was completely unable to move my body was that I was still a whole person,” Dettwiler says. “I laughed. I cried. And I had the range of emotions and the full range of dreams, so it made me think that our bodies are houses in which we live, and sometimes they serve us well and sometimes they don’t.”
The disease struck her from the outside in, and as she began to heal, she could sense the feeling moving back out to her limbs, but the illness left its mark. Her once wide and toothy smile was gone, as the muscles in her face were forever damaged. It meant some people thought she wasn’t as expressive as she could be. She lost the ability to show her teeth. She lost the strength to fully vocalize, this from an aspiring choral conductor. It wouldn’t keep her down long. She regrouped and she forged on.
Over thirty years after her bout with Guillain-Barre, she posted on her Facebook page the following:
“1. Despite the fact that my body was completely “out of commission,” I felt like a whole person with the full range of emotions. I came to the conclusion that our bodies are our houses, not who we are.
2. From day one, the doctor told me I would get worse, but then, the disease would go into remission. Having hope makes all the difference when facing any difficulty!
3. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t receive a visitor or a get-well card. Remember this when others are ill or struggling!
4. I found my inner strength through this illness. Life is unpredictable. There will be good and bad days. Strive to make something positive rise from the ashes.
So after physical therapy, yoga, acupuncture, electro-stimulation, cranial-sacral massage, thermage, and healing touch, I am still left with permanent facial and vocal-fold weakness; something I deal with on a daily basis in my choral conducting career. Yet, I don’t believe I would be where I am today without that illness. From growing up as a farm girl to standing on the Carnegie Hall stage, I discovered a fearlessness to take risks, to stand up for the truth, and to seek joy in what life might offer.”
Her husband, Jurgen Thym, professor emeritus of musicology at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, credits the illness for pushing her in a certain direction and finding a deeper well of inner strength.
Dettwiler doesn’t remember, or recognize, who she was before the disease. A new person emerged.
“I don’t know if I would have had the courage to move and be more mobile, so it might have propelled me to grow more and to risk more,” Dettwiler says.
From Madison, Wisconsin, where she earned a BM in voice performance and her MM in music education, she was soon courted by San Antonio, where she enrolled at the University of Texas. She and her first husband, a football coach from the Midwest, tried the long distance relationship, but they were on divergent paths and soon divorced amicably.
She earned another masters degree, this one in choral conducting at UT San Antonio, and pondered where to go next. Dettwiler knew she needed a terminal degree for a tenured university position. She wanted to study under Don Neuen at the Eastman School of Music, so she auditioned in 1986, but didn’t get admitted. The school only takes one PhD candidate a year. She tried again in 1987, and was rejected yet again.
The feedback Dettwiler received from Eastman was that her talents were appreciated, but she needed more passion in her conducting. Passion was something she felt in the house of her body, but it was something she couldn’t exhibit physically because her illness stole that from her face. She explained this and they listened, but she figured they’d never take her anyway, so she made her peace and moved on.
She had some vague notions of where she wanted to go from there, given the failure at Eastman—most likely a lukewarm move to the West, or to Austin. A friend suggested a more mystical nudging: visit a psychic.
“Well, I don’t really want to know the future,” she told her friend.
“Oh, it’s fun. He’s really good. He’s from India,” her friend replied.
The psychic said her life would take her east and that she would eventually meet a brilliant foreigner.
The school she was teaching at in San Antonio prodded her for future plans. Would she stay or go? She had a few days to tell them. Then she received a call from Neuen at Eastman. He told her he wanted to work with her but couldn’t take her this year. If he didn’t audition another candidate, would she enroll in a year? It was an emphatic yes. She told her school she’d teach one more year and then make the long trip to Rochester, New York, in a year’s time.
Part 1 of the psychic’s prediction came true. Part 2 would soon follow.
Jurgen Thym was teaching a Beethoven symphony class—fitting, as Thym grew up in Germany. Troubling as it could have been, he and Dettwiler struck up something that would bloom into more than a friendship.
“It’s one of these stories deans are usually afraid of,” Thym says. “A teacher and student meet and start a relationship. I came out of a relationship and was separated and was not quite ready. She had taken my seminar.” When the class finished he told her, “Maybe don’t taken another class with me.”
Dettwiler remembers hosting a party with the brilliant minds of her program and she saw Thym with a string playing with her cat Yum Yum. “I thought if the professor can do that, that’s pretty cool,” Dettwiler says.
While Thym remained at Eastman full time and wouldn’t leave full time teaching until 2000, Dr. Dettwiler took a position at Mansfield University, and they commuted up and down the I-390 corridor.
Following a sabbatical not long after the two were wed, Thym said, “It doesn’t make any sense to have two gardens to weed, and two mortgages to pay, and two lawns to mow. We can get more bucks for our house in your area. We bought this farmhouse here overlooking Tioga County. We have deer in our backyard and bears who take the bird feeders down.”
Thym had learned about Dettwiler’s fight with Guillain-Barre syndrome and loved her inner strength. It’s evident in all she’s been able to do at MU.
“It can be done with commitment and tenacity and proper direction,” he says. “It’s a miracle, in a way, that a small university of 2,000 students is still a major player in choral competitions in Europe.”
Nathan Rinnert, the MU music department chair for the past four years, notes that Dettwiler is “a great colleague to work with.”
“I don’t mean this in the way it may sound, but she’s a demanding colleague. She has high expertise and, for people she works with, she keeps us on our toes.”
Rinnert is continually amazed at what once-in-a-lifetime events Dettwiler offers the students, from trips to Europe to opportunities to sing at Carnegie Hall.
“This was an invitation,” he says. “The students were put up in hotels. It was a professional experience, an orchestra, director, and producer. I don’t know any other college choir that’s getting that. This university on the hill in rural Pennsylvania has this incredible choral director. Not only are her pedagogy skills phenomenal, she takes good singers and turns them into great singers.”
Mandy Rusk, who studied at MU from 2010-2014, says, “She confirmed every reason why I love music.” And also, Dettwiler’s own blueprint taught Rusk the meaning of patience.
“I don’t have to be in a huge rush,” she says. “It took her a while to find what paths she wanted to go down. She’s still finding things she wants to do. [It’s inspiring] to see a woman who is not twenty-five years old and is still hoping to accomplish dreams and setting ambitions.”
Despite the worldwide acclaim Dettwiler has earned for herself and the program, her relationship to every student leaves its personal mark.
“She saw me when I went through college,” Rusk says. “I had a pretty traumatic experience with a breakup and she was 100 percent ears. She was willing to help, to be there in every way she could. For her to care about her students shows a lot about her as a person.”
Dettwiler could also see past a student’s outer protective layer and to the talent and potential below the veneer. Kyle Rusk, a pianist, who met Mandy at Mansfield and later married her, was such a person.
“I was more cocky than confident coming into school,” he says. “She took that cockiness and molded it into a more professional confidence. People wanted to be around me more. She gave me so many opportunities that not a lot of musicians get. After a semester, she asked, ‘Do you want to be an accompanist for the choir?’ I said, ‘That’s a pretty big gig.’ She said, ‘I know.’ That formed a deep trust.”
To this day, years after graduating, Kyle can point to why Dettwiler was so effective with him and, by extension, countless others.
“One, her exceptional ability in her musical skill conducting,” he says. “Two, the teaching ability. She is an expert conductress. ‘How do I teach somebody to be better? What is this student doing well? What is something he or she can improve?’ and communicate that effectively. Three, being a visionary, not only for the students but for herself.
“It takes a person with a true vision, who in 1990 is starting off at Square 1. And, just shy of thirty years later, she’s been to Carnegie Hall four times.”
And, to quote Rinnert, “She feels like she’s in the prime of her career. She calls herself a late bloomer. She feels that she’s getting to do all the things that people do at forty-five or fifty years old, but not at retirement age. Even at seventy years old, she’s not slowing down.”
The worry, if it can be called that, about Midwest roots is that they run too deep, and a possible global talent might be stifled by geography, family, and the farm. For some that is a noble life, but not for all. For others, the sight of the horizon isn’t a fence, but a siren call beckoning further exploration.
“In a way the Midwest is wonderful for an upbringing on the farm,” Thym says, “but it’s also a hindrance that the roots are so strong that people don’t want to move away. That [Peggy] finally did it, doing it late, her career is peaking now.”
She’s taking on more and more, like becoming the president of the American Choral Directors Association eastern division and lobbying for the 2020 ACDA conference to be in Rochester, the same city where she earned that coveted doctorate in conducting, where she met her future husband, all predicted by an astute Indian psychic.
Naturally, Dettwiler will have a prime role in the upcoming Endless Mountain Music Festival where she’ll conduct the community chorus through the first four movements of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ five-movement In Windsor Forest.
Despite the places she’s gone and the places she’ll go, she can always return to that warm spot in Illinois, as she did back in March 2016, when it was anything but warm.
The bus, loaded with forty-three students for an eight-day tour, took a slight detour on its trip to Madison, Wisconsin, so Dettwiler could swing through her hometown and sing again in the church of her youth: Afolkey Church. The bus pulled up to a scene of skeletal trees, partly cloudy skies, and months-ago-harvested farmland. The church’s parking lot was full and the homecoming of the town’s premier émigré had an audience.
They even drove past the farm where Dettwiler grew up, the same farm where she once climbed up the grain silo with a burlap sack to catch a charismatic pigeon, where she rode and raised horses, milked cows.
In the Mansfield University newsletter Hear the Voices, Dettwiler cites a verse in her introductory essay often attributed to Kahlil Gibran:
Yesterday is already a dream
and tomorrow is only a vision,
but today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream
of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
She closes her essay quoting J.R.R. Tolkien, writing “‘Deep roots are not touched by the frost.’ Coming home brings us back to our roots, not touched by frost and time.”