The singing cowboy is an inspiring choir leader

DENNIS GEPHART WAS told to go into the trades and nearly became a cowboy in Wyoming, but fate landed him at Port Washington High School, where he has made it cool to be in choir. (Lower photo) Dennis Gephart has brought Port Washington High School to national prominence through his choir program Photos by Sam Arendt


Ozaukee Press staff

One of the most decorated and passionate high school choir directors in the country got introduced to singing on a whim and was nearly deterred from going into education twice.

Dennis Gephart’s guidance counselor suggested he go to trade school, and during summers while attending college Gephart nearly accepted a job as a professional cowboy in Wyoming.

Gephart’s resilience overcame the first obstacle, and his future wife prevented the other temptation.

Gephart has since gone on to lead Port Washington High School’s choirs to national prominence, performing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Lincoln Center in New York City, the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy, and he helped develop the country’s first a cappella solo ensemble event and co-founded an a cappella summer camp. His a cappella group Limited Edition qualified for the Varsity Vocals International Championship of High School A Cappella finals seven times and won the title in 2010.

Growing up in Plymouth, none of that looked to be in the script for Gephart, whose father was a prison guard — “everything was black and white” — and his mother was a factory worker and hairdresser.

His introduction to singing began with “The King and I” when he was in third grade. His older sister was trying out for a part but got scared and ran away while waiting to audition.

“My mom looked and me and shoved me into the door and went after my sister,” he said.

Just before high school started, Gephart was hanging out in the back of the theater when the high school choir director Bob Stoll asked him what he was doing, and then took him to the office to sign him up for choir.

Gephart wasn’t new to carrying a tune. He grew up singing in a Lutheran church, and in high school he also played saxophone.

He was competent in shop classes but took as many music classes as he could. His guidance counselor told Gephart his grades weren’t good and attending a four-year university would be a waste of money. He instead suggested trade school.

“I’ll never forget that meeting,” Gephart said.

Gephart ended up getting a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and majored in musical performance and education.

One of his summer jobs was working on a dude ranch in Wyoming founded by Buffalo Bill Cody. Gephart claimed he knew how to ride horses but he had never been on one, which became obvious to his boss when selecting one. Gephart chose an elderly horse that was nearly dead.

But he learned quickly, helping lead tourists, including Supreme Court justices and congressmen, through Yellowstone National Park, which included whitewater rafting, crossing rivers on horses, making corned beef and hash on the edge of a cliff and a couple of run-ins with bears, including one in which a bear attacked the camp at night and killed a horse.

Gephart loved the cowboy lifestyle and brought his future wife, Deborah, out west for his second summer. Girls were servers and cleaned cabins, and they were restricted to their rooms at 9 p.m. Staff members couldn’t date, so the two had to hide their relationship by sending each other letters and meeting at square dances.

Gephart was offered a full-time job as an elk hunter that would have had him build his own cabin in a remotely wooded area and lead tourists on elk hunts.

He told Deborah about the career opportunity, and, “she said, ‘I’m leaving in a week.’”

Closer to home, Gephart worked at Road America and got to talk to legends such as Mario Andretti.

“I didn’t have any dull high school and college jobs,” he said.

Gephart started his music teaching career going to five different schools in Antigo, one of which in Lily that was the last one-room school-house in the state.

“It was cool because they had all these grants,” he said, adding it was the first school in Wisconsin to get computers.

He then taught in Medford for four years before accepting a job at Port High. There he replaced the legendary Port High choir director Bill Ross in 2001 and was told nobody could fill his shoes.

Gephart wanted to start an a cappella group, and he began with madrigal dinners. Students wrote the script, and Memories Ballroom in the Town of Port was sold out for every show.

Gephart turned that into his award-winning a cappella group, which can perform anywhere and anytime. Limited Edition doesn’t even need a microphone.

“We can walk out the door, sing for people and be back by the next class,” he said.

Limited Edition is a class with a unique grading system.

“I always say my tests are in front of 800 people,” Gephart said. “Everybody gets the same grade.”

That, he said, forces students to hold each other accountable.

Gephart gives his students more than music education through Limited Edition.

He teaches history through relating current hits to older songs, such as comparing Alicia Keys’ “Underdog” to an Italian song from 14th century that garners the same emotions.

Economics are taught through having a student business manager. Students learn website design and branding — what to wear in promotional photos and what’s appropriate to post on social media — and one student created a video for a national nonprofit organization using Limited Edition’s music in the background that was shown to Congress.

The choir room also serves as more than a place to learn music.

“It’s a safe place for a lot of kids. It’s their second home,” Gephart said. “That’s why we’ve got a couch.”

Gephart was among the first to start an a cappella group in the area, and the Midwest has since become a hotspot with the most a cappella groups in the country. Relationships formed in those early years give Gephart access to a cappella leaders who went on to commercial success, such as Deke Sharon, who was the arranger, on-site music director and vocal producer for the “Pitch Perfect” movies.

After winning the national finals in 2010, Limited Edition was allowed to use Ric Probst’s recording studio in Milwaukee for free.

Donations have come from across the community, and Gephart recently made thank-you cards that students will deliver. That, he said, is the key to his choirs’ success.

“It starts with the community’s generosity,” he said. “It shows how one person’s good deed can affect these kids.”

Gephart’s efforts were honored this year when he received a certificate of excellence from the Civic Music Association of Milwaukee.

“It was by my colleagues. I think that meant the most,” Gephart said.

Outside of school, Gephart enjoys hunting and fishing. He and his wife have two children. Their son has a computer science degree and their daughter is studying business with a music minor in college. Both came through their father’s programs and still enjoy music.

“How healthy it is to have something in their day that’s music,” Gephart said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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