Jerry Knoepfel came to Waupaca with a vision and a mission.
He wanted to enhance the community which was to become his new home with music and art.
Within his first couple years here, Knoepfel did just that.
As the new choral instructor at Waupaca High School, he directed the school’s first musical in the early 1960s.
Next, he began working to establish what would become the Fine Arts Festival of Waupaca.
This year, the festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Its first event – the Waupaca Community Choir and Civic Orchestra concert – is 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 7, in the high school’s Perforning Arts Center.
“Jerry’s really responsible for it all. He was a visionary. He dedicated every waking day of his life to building it. Even the PAC we have today we wouldn’t have without his precedent,” said Dan Wolfgram.
He became the high school’s choral instructor after Knoepfel retired and took over as conductor of the community chorus and civic orchestra in 2008. He is also the chairman of the festival’s executive board.
A festival is born
“He had this dream of establishing this whole fine arts festival,” Ken Porrey said of Knoepfel, who conducted the chorus and orchestra through 2007 and passed away in June of 2008.
The Porreys were among those in the choir that first year, and they have been in it every year since.
The couple did not yet know Knoepfel when they saw an article about an organizational meeting for a fine arts festival in the Waupaca County Post.
Both sang in choir when they were in high school and also sang in their church choir.
They decided to go.
That organizational meeting was held on Jan. 14, 1964, in the high school music room.
An article on the front page of the Jan. 9, 1964, Waupaca County Post said, “The object of these projects is to bring to Waupaca the culture of the arts and to promote the growth and the education of the citizens of the Waupaca area.
About 35 people attended that meeting, and about 100 people were in the chorus the first year, Ken said.
He said, initially, they were not sure if they would get enough people to join such a chorus.
The music was difficult.
Knoepfel chose Mendelssohn’s oratario “Elijah” for the first concert.
The first members of the choir also wondered if they would attract an audience.
Knoepfel was an optimist and believed Waupaca was ready for it.
“Once we got through the first performance, everyone thought, ‘What did we do?'” Ken said. “God was with us. We did something that we never expected we could pull off in Waupaca.”
Knoepfel encouraged the students in his high school choirs to sing in the community choir.
“He told his students to either sing in the choir or attend and write a critique. It was part of the program,” Selma Knoepfel said of her late husband.
Jerry and Selma met in France in 1958 when both were teaching overseas.
They were married in 1965, and Selma joined the community choir in 1966.
“He never gave me any evaluation of my voice,” she said.
Selma said her husband did not know anyone when he began teaching at WHS.
In addition to teaching, he also directed the choirs at Trinity Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church.
Those two choirs served as sources to find members of the community chorus.
The first year
In addition to the concert, the first year of the festival included an art show.
Carolyn Gusmer was among those who volunteered at the first show. She later served as the chair of the art show, doing so for a total of 19 years.
“I’ve always loved art,” Gusmer said. “In college, I took a couple art history classes, and I also took some art classes.”
It was Vi Richards, one of the art show organizers, who asked Gusmer if she would help with that first art show.
The first art show was held at the former site of First United Methodist Church, across from the Post Office.
The Porreys said raising funds for the new festival was difficult the first year.
“The second year, we broke even,” Ken said. “Jerry was the kind of guy who didn’t get discouraged.”
As the fine arts festival became a tradition, the community supported it, he said.
The final piece of the festival – community theatre – became a part of the program in 1979.
“Harvey” was performed that year, with musicals later becoming an annual tradition, beginning in 1998 when Berray Billington directed “Cabaret.”
John Kelley, co-chair of the festival’s executive board and chair of the festival’s Theatre Committee, grew up in Waupaca and remembers his mother, Peggy, singing in the community choir.
“We were taken to concerts when we were young,” Kelley said of himself and his siblings. “The nice thing was it was probably my first introduction to a live orchestra with string players. As someone a little younger, I always looked up and thought they were excellent players.”
When he was a senior at WHS, Kelley played the timpani in the orchestra. During his undergrad years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied music, he returned to play in the orchestra.
In the fall of 2001, he and his wife, Gretchen, moved back to Waupaca with their three daughters, and the following year, Kelley was back playing with the orchestra.
Today, most of his work for the fine arts festival involves the community theatre.
This summer, he will direct his fourth show, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Kelley said the community theatre initially did two or three shows per year.
Eventually, the decision was made to do one large musical each summer.
“It went over well, and they’ve done them ever since,” he said. “It takes a year to plan out.”
The community theatre likes to mix up the types of shows it does.
One year, the show might involve children; the next year, it might have more of an adult theme.
Last summer’s production, “The Wizard of Oz,” involved close to 112 people, including those on stage, playing in the pit and working backstage, he said.
In 2006, the Waupaca Children’s Theatre began as an outgrowth of the community theatre.
“The casts have been between 25 to 50 kids, depending on the show. They go to area libraries to perform, and it’s free,” Kelley said. “It allows them to be a part of a show that they create and to provide the area with some children’s shows. It’s a good learning experience for the kids and a good feeder system.”
Fine arts today
“It’s incredible that an organization like the Fine Arts Festival, after this amount of time, is still providing the community with such wonderful cultural events here and that it’s continuing to flourish and grow here,” Kelley said. “I’m hoping for another 50 years. I’m really proud to be a part of the organization. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”
He said Knoepfel was a major influence for him.
“Fortunately, he decided to start this organization and guide it to the point where it’s been an artistic benefit to the community,” Kelley said.
Gusmer said she knows many people who chose to move to Waupaca because of what the community offers.
“I don’t think I’d be happy in a town that did not have it,” she said of the arts. “It adds a new dimension.”
For the Porreys, their involvement in the festival resulted in many friendships.
“I think we both felt we were so fortunate to have an opportunity like this in a community this size,” Ken said. “Jerry was a one of a kind. That’s why it did succeed. I have to say Waupaca is so fortunate to have Dan Wolfgram to take over this program.”
Wolfgram said, “I think that Waupaca is a very special place for the sole reason that we are a community that for 50 years has valued, cherished and supported all of the fine arts. I don’t know of any other community in Wisconsin our size that offers the amount of arts we offer here.”
He believes the Waupaca Community Choir is one of the oldest community choirs in the state.
“I realized when I came and took the director of choral activities position at the high school that this is unlike any other town this size I’ve ever been in. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed here for 22 years,” Wolfgram said.
The Fine Arts Festival of Waupaca will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a celebration party from 5-8 p.m. Saturday, June 29, at the Waupaca Country Club.
The evening will include hors d’oeuvres and a three-piece jazz ensemble.
“People can stop in and reminisce. It is not a fundraiser. We are just looking to celebrate our existence,” Wolfgram said. “We want to host the people who have supported us or have been a part of it.”
The board is currently compiling a mailing list. Those who want to be included on the mailing list may contact the Waupaca Fine Arts Festival through its website at http://fineartsfestival.org/ or at P.O. Box 55, Waupaca, WI 54981.
The organization is also in the process of putting together a 50th anniversary commemorative book.
The 50th anniversary leaves Selma thinking about the many people who have helped make the festival possible.
She misses talking to Jerry and remembers the hours he spent in the music room in their home preparing for the annual concert.
“It was a good life,” she said. “We got to know the community a little better.”
Wolfgram pays homage to Knoepfel, who he said “came here with a vision and a dream.”
In addition, Wolfgram appreciates and recognizes all who contributed to the arts these past 50 years.
“It’s an honor to be associated with an arts organization which has such a rich history,” he said.
The arts enrich lives.
“They allow us to express, emote and create and give us an avenue to do what no other creature on earth can do – to create art. I think there is an innate desire for humans to create art. Without that avenue to do so, we become stilted as a society and a community.”
He and the members of the choir enjoy their fellowship.
“The fact that these people are willing to put their time as a contribution, as well as their talent, shows their desire and their need to be with like-minded people,” Wolfgram said.
The arts result in new ideas, new friendships, new creative outlets.
“It gives us a chance to play together as a community. We, as adults, don’t play together enough. Somewhere down the line, society told us we had to grow up. We forgot how to do that – to draw, to sing, to dance, all those things that celebrate the human spirit,” he said.