A legacy of excellence

Choir director to leave after 20 years at Bethel.

By Maddy Simpson | Royal Report

Dennis Port stands in a graveyard in Germany. Students are spread among the graves.

A student approaches Port, addressing him by his nickname.

“DP, I have no words to express what I just experienced,” and then she paused a minute and said, “I guess that’s why we sing.”

For 20 years, Port has directed Bethel University’s choir practice four times a week, leading the community in music and in life. This is his last year teaching at Bethel University. And Saturday’s festival was his last as conductor.

Port came to Bethel in 1995 with many years experience, having worked as both a high school choir director in Cambridge, MN, and a college choir director at King’s College in New York and Northwestern College.

He grew up watching his parents sing duets in his baptist church. Singing together as a family was typical in his house. In high school he was part of choir and band. Until college, his life had been infused with music. But, as Port prepared to enter college, he chose to study math.

“My high school music experience had not been anything near what would inspire one to be a professional,” Port said. “And I loved math, because that’s what I was good at in high school.”

It was only under the guidance of his advisor at Bethel, then choir director Robert Berglund, that he switched his major to music, eventually graduating in 1966 with a B.A. degree.

Dennis Port attended Bethel University from 1962–1966. “I had been formed at Bethel,” Port said. Photos courtesy of Bethel University Digital Library.

Port directed choir in every environment possible: high school choir, church choir and university choir. He moved to the East Coast for six years, directing a choir at King’s College and earning his Ph.d. before moving back to the Twin Cities. After serving as a music teacher and choir director at Northwestern College — now the University of Northwestern, St. Paul — Port applied to be a professor of music and the leader of the Bethel Choir at Bethel.

Graphic produced by Tim Evancho and Maddy Simpson.

“I was pushing 50 and I thought, ‘Maybe one more challenge is out there for me,’” Port said.

In 1995, Port joined the music faculty at Bethel, taking the place of Berglund, who had directed the choir for 36 years.

Students are on stage, in the seats, milling around in hallway, singing various scales. Instruments come out of hard cases. Loose pieces of sheet music slip out of hands, scattering on the floor. Bows drag back and forth across cello strings, tuning the groaning instrument to perfection. This is the beginning of Festival practice.

When Port came to Bethel, the annual Festival of Christmas was an acapella concert, sometimes including a token band performance. Now, Festival is a collaboration between the band, orchestra, and choirs of Bethel that attracts more than 6,500 people each year.

Port wanted to change the complexity of sounds in the performance, and to create a clearer theme for the whole concert.

“I was more conscious than my predecessors of the theme,” he said. “We would have three sections in a lot of the concerts and they would be reflecting on the advent, the birth of Jesus and then the response to it. And I think that has helped in terms of creating interest from year to year.”

Bethel graduate and choir alumni Natalie Dahlquist stayed in contact with Port even after she left Bethel in 2008. This year, she and all other Bethel Choir graduates have the opportunity to sing with Port in Festival one last time before he retires from his position in May, a rare privilege for alumni singers.

Natalie Dahlquist sang under Port while she attended Bethel and again this year at Festival of Christmas. “I respect him and admire him so much,” said Dahlquist. (Photo submitted by Natalie Dahlquist.)

Dahlquist remembers how she was sad every Friday in college because it meant she wouldn’t get to sing for a whole weekend. She remembers the book that she and her fellow singers made, full of “DP” quotes, random things he said in class, immortalized in the book. She remembers — and looks forward to — sitting with him at weddings because “DP always comes to his students’ weddings.”

“He cares about students outside of their choir lives,” Dahlquist said. “He loves all his students, he really cares about us.”

Bethel choir alumni Melanie Wohlers decided to pursue a career teaching music only after being in Bethel Choir with Port.

“Just seeing the way that he interacts with students and really connects with them inspired me to become a better teacher and to see the deeper meaning behind teaching,” Wohlers said. “I consider him one of the most important people in my life. I can’t even begin to describe how much I look up to him as a person.”

Dennis Port directs in the Benson Great Hall as he has done for the past 20 years. (Photo courtesy of Bethel University Office of Communications and Marketing.)

Port thought of retiring at 65, a standard age of retirement. That year, he got what he called “another excellent class of freshmen,” and decided to finish his career at Bethel when they did. Port, turning 70 in January, will retire in at the end of the academic year.

“It’s the right time,” Port said.

Bethel is reviewing prospective replacements for Port.

“Whoever takes over has huge shoes to fill and I don’t think it will ever be the same,” Wohlers said. “He has shaped the music program into the way it is.”

Where will Port’s life lead him next? Port looks to the future and earmarks three things: He wants to do something of service, he wants to earn a little money, and he wants to continue making music.

“He taught me to never settle for anything but the best,” Wohlers said. “He taught me to always believe in myself. He is unforgettable.”

Students applaud Dennis Port before his last Festival of Christmas performance. “He has shaped the music department into what it is today,” alumni choir student Melanie Wohlers said. (Video taken by Melanie Wohlers.)