Rachel, Jack Parker played a major role in 23 years of Senior Centre Singers

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Jack and Rachel Parker, who will be celebrating their 55th anniversary in July, have played a major role in the Tillsonburg Senior Centre Singers for the past 23 years.

Rachel, 80, has been the music director, and Jack, 79, the manager, for more than two decades.

In 2014, the year of their final 'large' concert in the Lions Auditorium at the Tillsonburg Community Centre, the Singers celebrated their 20th anniversary.

"That was a big one," said Rachel, who created a historical collage of photos. "When we started, and when we ended the really big shows, they were quite different."

She remembers receiving an invitation to help from Doug Kamps in 1995, one of 8-10 singers at the Centre, a Rotarian who loved to sing.

"He loved to sing and he had a great voice," said Jack.

"A beautiful tenor voice," Rachel nodded. "He said, 'we need more people singing, we've got this tiny little group... and we feel we need something.' That's how we started - we had fancy hats, and we'd sing. My mother saw the very first ones we had... it was really small.

"Then we suddenly grew so quickly with Hickory Hills opening up. You had singers who wanted to find a place to sing and they came to the Senior Centre. They'd say, 'do you have a choir?' Then it began to grow and grow and the next thing you know we got too big for the Senior Centre Auditorium."

Jack and Ken Holland had designed a set of wooden risers to give the singers some height on stage.

"We still have all that stuff," Jack noted. "We used it in the Senior Centre Auditorium, then the Lions Auditorium for a while, but then I got concerned about the safety of it. So we started renting them from Kitchener... they were all aluminum. Really heavy duty aluminum, a lot easier to handle."

The risers, which they rented for a span of one week, grew to be 4-5 levels as the choir grew to more than 70. Verne's Carpet One loaned a truck to get the risers and Grant Nunn drove it.

"Our own singers, and their spouses, headed by Jack as manager of the crew, put those flats up and down every time," said Rachel.

"And they were a lot easier than the old wooden ones," Jack laughed.

In the early years, the Senior Centre Singers 'migrated' to perform at various churches in the area, including Ingersoll, Norwich and Otterville, as well as Tillsonburg.

"As we got bigger, we could only do them in the (Lions) Auditorium," Rachel noted. "We couldn't go places because they couldn't accommodate us - there was just no place to put that many people."

Over the years, the Tillsonburg Community Centre was very cooperative, said Jack, letting them store stage equipment at the centre.

Early Years

"I grew up in Norwich and my dad had a dairy and lunch counter," said Jack. "He delivered milk with a horse in town and a truck all the way to Five Points. So I helped deliver milk for years and years..."

Rachel grew up in the Delhi area, attending the Rhineland Public School, Grade 1-8, which had about 25 students.

"Terrific teacher, loved music," said Rachel. "She got me loving music, and my sisters as well. My mother loved music and could sing, too. I'm Belgian - my mother and father met and married here after they came to Canada. They gave us everything. My mother said, 'I didn't have a chance,' and my mother wanted to be educated, and she said, 'the girls, they'll work hard, but they have the right to do what any guy can do.' And my dad agreed, so we were given everything... but we worked hard. We worked hard in the fields, like the guys."

Jack shared a story about Rachel driving the tractor while her dad was on the planter, "under pain of death to make a crooked row..."

"My dad was very fussy," Rachel explained. "My parents let us do many things, they let us do music lessons and try very hard, but... if you didn't do it well, forget it. We knew that. We always knew, so we worked very hard. And we did well because we worked hard."

In the first 30-plus years of their marriage, the music was a bit one-sided.

"Me? Zilch," Jack smiled. "I am not a music guy. My dad was a singer, but... me? I have none."

"He wasn't blessed that way," said Rachel, who met Jack when both were teaching at a new school, Waterloo Collegiate, in 1960. As charter members, they attended the school's 25 and 50-year reunions.

"She taught Latin and French, and I taught Science (Biology)," said Jack.

"My music went from public school to high school in Delhi, always trying to get into choirs and dance routines," said Rachel.

"I always sang all the time, the radio was always on, there was always music," she said. "My dad, he just whistled. But they didn't do that in Jack's home. I said, 'didn't your family sing?'"

"I tell people, 'they passed a law in Ottawa that forbade me to sing where anybody could hear me,'" Jack laughed.

"He always said to me, 'if there was one gift I wish I could have had, I wish I could have been a singer," said Rachel.

Jack went on to work at Glendale (taking a position as dept. head in 1965) and Annandale, as well as Ingersoll, Norwich and Woodstock.

Married in 1962, Rachel gave up teaching after their first child.

"I loved teaching and I still do," she said.

In the mid-60s Jack asked the Rotary how Rachel could be involved in their annual February shows, and she was able to join in 1967.

"I'm in Rotary because she got me in - pushed me in," Jack grinned. "Then I did some stage work for Little Theatre, which is now Otter Valley Playhouse, and that's because Rachel went out to audition, and the director said, 'Jack how would you like to read?'"

Jack ended up getting the spot, which required singing off key.

"Which was no problem," he laughed.

Rachel remembers one of her first parts, singing She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage - at a very high key.

"And I'm not that high a singer," Rachel admitted, "so I wanted that key lowered. But they wouldn't do it. After that... I put it down myself, I lowered all my keys. And that's how I got started. I said to myself, 'I have to do something in this town or I'll go crazy.'"

"Then she got me involved in the choir," said Jack. "She just pushes me wherever she wants me to go..."

"Not really," Rachel quickly pointed out. "You were the one who said, 'Can you sing? We have this choir...'"

"Well, I recruited," Jack nodded.

"He was a very good recruiter of singers," said Rachel. "He wasn't a singer, but he did it in a different way. He'd be sitting beside someone at a concert and say, 'You can sing, do you think you'd like to join a choir? Would you like to join that choir?' And often, they'd come out."

Jack remembers when Dan Mahony joined the singers.

"A longtime resident of Tillsonburg, Dan and his wife always came to the concerts. He said, 'you know Jack, people tell me I have a nice voice, but I don't know anything about music. Is there any chance I could try out to sing with this group?' He joined, and the two things he said afterward that impressed me, he told his wife Joan, 'rehearsals are three hours long, I don't think I can handle that.' Two or three weeks later he said, 'rehearsals go by so fast, I can't believe it!' The other thing he said was 'I have never been a rookie. I've coached all kinds of rookies, and now I'm a rookie. I really got my eyes opened about them, the mental pressures you have as a rookie.'"

"He (Mahony) said, 'I had no idea it took this much concentration, just to sing,'" Rachel added.

"So other things come out of singing," said Jack. "Self awareness."

The singers went on to become a very close family, said Rachel. And they still are as they come to the end of their current run with a Final Concert planned Tuesday, April 11th at the Senior Centre Auditorium. They don't have 72 singers, but the 30-35 remaining singers still sing at a high calibre.

"People in the community, they expect something, a certain level," said Rachel. "So we're saying goodbye hoping we're still at a level of competency. I'm saying, 'you still have to work hard.' They all agree with that."

A luncheon has been planned on April 9th for all current and past singers.

The decision to 'retire' as director and manager, on one hand, was not an easy one. It's never easy to say goodbye to something that's been a part of your life for 23 years.

But, Jack admitted, they are getting older. They have less stamina than they did 10-20 years ago.

"Jack used to walk a lot," said Rachel. "Well, he still walks but not as fast. He wants to still to be able to do things like cleaning the yard, but how much time is there in one day?"

Jack had started curling in 1960, but gave it up after having a stroke a few years ago.

"I'm not missing curling, but I still play golf though," Jack added, noting he wants to be golfing when he's 92.

Stress, they agreed, contributed to the decision to step down. Finding pianists over the years, making sure they have the right music for the group. Selling tickets. It all added up.

"We will be sad," said Rachel, speaking for the Singers as a whole. "But it was getting smaller - some, it was going to be their last year and they were going to try to hang in there. Some will find it to be a bit of a jolt. Some will be sad, but some are up in their 80s too. I don't know how many are actually going to leave, it depends how they are going to handle it at the Senior Centre."

Jack, summing up why he feels Rachel was so good as a director, said 'Energy... concern... and she's got great ears and a great memory. When she leads them through a piece at practice, and it's over, she'll say 'ok, back on Bar 14, the basses missed their note. I couldn't do that. She remembers it. And the other thing is she puts emphasis on the meaning of the lyrics. If the person who's singing it is sad and crying, then sing it as if you're sad and crying. She interprets the lyrics as well as the music."

"I think it's important, because it's like speech," said Rachel.

"I think it's rare," said Jack.

The Parkers expect a sold out, capacity crowd on the 11th, which has been boosted from 105 to 130 tickets.

"Some people say, 'Rachel, I've been wanting to come for many years...' and I say, 'well, this is going to be the last one.' And they say, 'oh, I have to come to this one.' Some people think it's going to go on forever." 

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