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Richard Echard Ashburner Jr.: Symphony Chorus singer/manager; Special School District administrator

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2011 - When the curtain rose on most performances of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus over the past 22 years, Richard Ashburner was in position in the tenor section. Often, for the past 12 years, he had arrived at that position just seconds earlier. As manager of the chorus, he was busy until the last moment making sure that every chair, every sheet of music and every person was in place before Chorus Director Amy Kaiser waved her baton.

"Richard would manage all these things, then put on his singer's hat and share in making the music," Kaiser said. "He was able to juggle those things and be completely involved in the music and the performance. He was a master at this. He would never leave an empty chair on stage; that chair would disappear."

Mr. Ashburner, died unexpectedly Friday (March 18), at Barnes-Jewish Hospital from complications of pneumonia. He was 57 and had lived in the Central West End. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today (Tuesday, March 22) at St. Francis Xavier.

Keeping His Day Job

Richard Echard Ashburner Jr. was born Nov. 23, 1953, in Bloomington, Ind. The family moved to Pittsburgh, then to St. Louis in 1965.

He graduated from Lindbergh High School in 1971, and received his undergraduate degree from what was then Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. He earned a master's degree in speech and language pathology from St. Louis University.

Following graduation, he sang professionally for three years, including the title role in Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring," performing with such companies as the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. He joined the Symphony Chorus upon his return to St. Louis in 1981 and took on the manager's role in 1989.

But like most chorus members, Mr. Ashburner held down a "real" job. During the day, until retiring several years ago, he was an award-winning administrator with the Special School District of St. Louis County. His focus was on ensuring that children with special needs were successfully integrated into the classroom.

"He was passionate about inclusion," said David Ashburner, Mr. Ashburner's younger brother and friendly singing rival. "He felt that all children benefited from not having fears of people who were different from them.

"He was passionate for children, particularly those with special needs; he was ferocious on that. It's one of the few things I would see him get angry about -- saying a child couldn't do something or should be excluded."

He advocated on behalf of the kids, but he also helped teachers get over their fears. Mr. Ashburner's strength was collaborative teaching, said his partner and fellow musician, Charles Metz.

"His forte was getting teachers to work together," Metz said. "Richard taught teachers how to teach."

Mr. Ashburner was also an adjunct professor at Webster University. Following retirement, he continued as an education consultant, working with the Special School District as well as other school districts. He picked up similar duties with the Symphony. Again, the focus was children.

Last November, violinist Marc Thayer, the Symphony's vice president for education and community partnerships, told the St. Louis Beacon: "Richard has been a tremendous asset for our educational outreach efforts. He's really helped the musicians focus their musical presentations to make them as effective as they can possibly be in terms of really reaching and communicating with students."

Thayer said Mr. Ashburner's efforts had not only improved the educational presentations offered by the Symphony, but had inspired more musicians to participate in a variety of educational outreach efforts over the past few years.

Music First

"Both music and work with the Special School District were immensely important to Richard, but music was the passion that trumped all else," said Metz, a harpsichordist and former optometrist. "As a musician, music becomes part of your soul, your passion, your being." The chorus, formed in 1976, performs on orchestral nights with the Symphony Orchestra and during holiday concerts.

Mr. Ashburner was responsible for managing the 130 singers who arrived on stage from every part of the region and who have all kinds of day jobs: students and teachers, doctors and lawyers, laborers and medical professionals. It's the voice that gets them through the audition with Kaiser and Mr. Ashburner, and into the chorus.

"He was first of all a singer, so he totally knew the most important things; he knew the music came first, he knew voices so, so he appreciated singers," Kaiser said.

"He also listened to people, cared about their problems and helped them work through issues so they could participate in the chorus. He was so dedicated to the chorus; he loved it. And I relied on him completely."

In a 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, most chorus singers mentioned the heavy rehearsal schedule following a workday as their greatest challenge. Mr. Ashburner tried to lighten the load -- and the mood.

"Just about everybody has a full-time job and no one wants their time wasted at the end of the day," Kaiser said. "So every single week, Richard would send out a memo to the chorus about what they needed to think about that week like parking or CDs they could purchase.

"He did memos with a great sense of humor and clarity. I wish I had saved all of his memos."

Final Curtain

"It was just a tragedy to lose him; he had a lot more to give," Kaiser said. "We will be celebrating him and remembering him for many years to come."

Mr. Ashburner was preceded in death by his father, Richard E. Ashburner Sr.

In addition to his partner, Charles Metz of St. Louis, and his brother, David A. (Jean) Ashburner of Plano, Texas, Mr. Ashburner's survivors include his mother, Agnes Wulf Ashburner of Sumter, S.C., and a sister, Diane Ashburner of Kirkwood.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today (Tuesday, March 22) at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, 3628 Lindell Boulevard.

A musical celebration dedicated to Mr. Ashburner's life and work will be held next month. In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate memorial contributions to the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, 718 North Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63103.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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