Students to honor area elders in song

Nathan Steele

“Show up with a box of Kleenex” is the advice given by organizer Hank Fridell for those planning to attend this year’s annual Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song program. This year, like so many years before, the fourth grade students at Custer Elementary will come together in song to learn from and celebrate elders in the community. The students will honor three elders, Diane Bishop, Donna Kothe and Gary Lipp. The program takes place Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. at the Hermosa gym and then again that same day at 6:30 p.m. at the Custer High School Theater.
The program brings elders from the Custer and Hermosa communities to elementary classrooms to share their life stories with the students. Then, with the help of area songwriters, the students create a narrative of the elder’s life and compose an original song to be performed in a concert honoring the elders. The program is all about forming connections said Fridell and  Custer Elementary School principal Barb Paulson.
“There are always so many things that separate, and this is something that brings [people] together,” said Paulson.
“It helps identify who the community is—what we’re really about,” said Fridell, continuing, “It’s an opportunity for the community to come together and share who they are.”
They both say these connections are important for the students too.
“I see the connection between the kids and elders—its invaluable, said Fridell, “[The students] feel a real deep connection.” He said that students often continue to develop those relationships with their elders even after the program ends as they continue to see them in the community.
“Some kids maybe don’t have that opportunity of having a grandparent nearby that can take that place,” said Paulson.
Fridell, also a former Custer Elementary principal, has championed the community-centered program in Custer for 17 years. Fridell picked up the tradition in 1999 during his time as the elementary principal in Spearfish with the help of songwriter Larry Long. When he became the principal at Custer Elementary in 2005, he brought Elders’ Wisdom with him, and the tradition has stayed ever since.
Fridell and his wife Marianne Fridell are still involved with the program today as songwriters. Hank says that over the years he and Marianne have written 58 out of the 140-some songs that have been written as a result of the program, and says the songs try to capture “what we think is in this person’s heart.” Songwriter Sally Svenson is working with Deb Smith’s fourth grade class in Hermosa on a song for Bishop, while Hank is working with Jessica Haug’s class for Lipp’s song and Marianne is working with Lesley Poper’s class for Kothe’s song in Custer.
Each of the three elders said they were honored to be chosen and took it as a surprise that they were chosen.
For Bishop, the best part of the experience was “the kids and their excitement.” In fact, the students had so many questions, they asked Bishop to come back to the class for a second time. When she came back, she was surprised to see that they had planned a birthday celebration for her as well.
Bishop, a long-time teacher in the district, noted the students were interested in “things of today” but with some nudging from Svenson, got them interested in Bishop’s past. Bishop has lived through part of the Great Depression and World War II, and wants students to know that “things have changed immensely” since the time she grew up. She says she lived through fun times and hard times, but encourages students “to enjoy life.”
Gary Lipp, a former Custer mayor and Custer High School graduate also said “it was the questions” from the students that was the most enjoyable part of the experience. He noticed some kids were more bashful and had to be encouraged to ask questions, while others were eager to know more about his life and had many questions.
“You can grow up to whatever you want to be” is something Lipp hopes the students learn from the process. Lipp says it was “an honor” to be chosen as an elder for this year’s program.
Donna Kothe, who many  students have gotten to know from her years working as a  beloved substitute teacher in Custer schools, says the students’ questions were the most fun part of the experience. She noted that the students had a lot of “enthusiasm” and were very persistent in trying to get her to reveal her age.
“Do the math,” she told them.
“I love what kids think,” said Kothe. She says she wants the kids to know that she loves what she’s doing, loves working with the children and staff and that she worked hard. She also shared that her favorite song is “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan and told a story about how her mom told her “You’re never going to grow up”.
“I hope not,” she replied.
“I really don’t want to grow up,” said Kothe
Folks planning to attend the program may be surprised to hear what the students and songwriters wrote about the elders.
“We think we know the people in our community, but its the fourth graders who bring out all kinds of stories,” said Fridell.


User login