The Long and Musical Life of Stanley Schleenbaker
By Debbonnaire Kovacs, July 21, 2016
Correction: William Fagal’s name was misspelled. It is now corrected. We regret the mistake. Also, Stanley Schleenbaker would like to make it clear that these are his own reminiscences of his own personal experiences in world of quartet singing. This is not meant to be a story about Faith for Today or any other person or persons.
[Photo caption: The Final Faith for Today Quartet, 1963-66, provided by Stan Schleenbaker. Seated, Jim Ripley; second row left to right, Larry Fillingham and Stan Schleenbaker; third row, Don Siebenlist]
If you watched and listened to last week’s YouTube video of Stanley Schleenbaker singing tenor informally with the Kings Heralds, you surely enjoyed it. What you may not know is that the song they sang brought back many joyful memories of the Kings Heralds and the Faith for Today quartet, of which Schleenbaker was first tenor, singing together and even making a long-playing vinyl record together many years ago. A long and musical life has come full circle.
Schleenbaker was raised in a Seventh-day Adventist family, last of four sons. At fourteen, he went away to Shenandoah Valley Academy, and the first of many serendipities occurred. During his sophomore year, Schleenbaker remembers going early to chapel one day with his friends so that they could sit on the back row. During the singing of hymns, three faculty members sat down in the row in front of them, and after a song, one turned and asked, “Who has that beautiful tenor voice?”
“Sheepishly,” Schleenbaker told me, “I admitted it was me.”
This incident gave him an idea, and within days he and three friends had created a male quartet, which they cleverly named The Sophomore Quartet. (The next year it became The Junior Quartet, and finally The Senior Quartet.)
“Quartet singing,” said Schleenbaker, “was now really developing in my blood. When I went to Washington Missionary College (now Washington Adventist University), they had a course in singing evangelism which suited me to a T!” That spring, however, he went home “with love in my heart for certain girl I had met.” Instead of following his dream to become a singing evangelist, Schleenbaker got married and went into business with his father and brothers.
The rest of the year, though, he said that the idea “kept burning in my heart, that maybe I had made a mistake; maybe I should reconsider getting my education and pursuing singing evangelism.”
So the next fall he bought a trailer. If he was going to be a singing evangelist, he reasoned, he needed a trailer, so he could travel to camp meetings and conferences, and live by the big tent that such events featured at the time. When he went back to WMC, though, he encountered a difficulty. They had new regulations—no more trailers.
By this time, his dream of singing evangelism was so important to him that Schleenbaker went to Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University) instead. His trailer was delivered there, and he was all set. His only disappointment was that EMC didn’t have a singing evangelism program. He had to take “straight theology, and mix in what music I could with the religion curriculum.”
Within his first month at his new college, Schleenbaker was asked to sing with the Collegians, the college’s traveling choir, and it wasn’t long before he found three more voices and created another quartet, which they called the Collegianaires.
“I was,” Schleenbaker said, “as happy as a lark.”
Between his sophomore and junion years, Schleenbaker hauled his trailer to Ephrata, PA, and was tentmaster and singing evangelist for the summer for the Calkins brothers, who were holding series there. Their theme was “Restoring the Historic Faith of Ephrata,” in reference to the Ephrata Cloister, who kept the seventh day Sabbath. (Click here to revisit a musical slide show of the Cloister we posted some time back.)
“My appetite was really whetted now for singing evangelism,” Schleenbaker said. A big opportunity was about to come his way. During his junior year, Elder William Fagal heard about his quartet and called to ask if he would be willing to join the Faith for Today telecast. Their first tenor had developed nodes on his vocal cords and they needed a replacement. Schleenbaker was tempted, but said no, he needed to finish his education.
The Michigan conference president, Elder Hutches, in interviewing religion students looking for new pastors, told Schleenbaker that if he would sell literature for one summer, his position would be assured. So he took the offer and earned a scholarship by selling within a 25-mile radius of EMC. He was offered the associate pastorship of the Battle Creek Tabernacle. Amazingly, another male quartet had all moved into the area, and Schleenbaker told me that he and his wife had barely moved their things in before that first tenor came to him and said, “You are now the new first tenor of the pastors’ quartet, because I’m quitting.”
That first summer out of school, Schleenbaker received a second call from Elder Fagal. The tenor had held on, but seriously needed to stop now. Schleenbaker told me, “Now I was confused. I really wanted singing evangelism, and all Andrews had to offer was straight, outright pastoring theology. I had to add my own music quotient to make a sing evangelism curriculum. Now I was in quartet, and also a pastor. The conference gave us one day a week devoted to the quartet, for rehearsal. We traveled all over, to meetings, even as far up as the Upper Peninsula camp meeting. I was pretty content that I was doing the job of singing evangelsim. So, I said no to Elder Fagal again.”
However, he felt that he was “rather forced into a pastor position because of the way their curriculum was set up,” and after a couple of years he felt “miscast.” The other members of his quartet had moved away, and the quartet had ceased to function. Schleenbaker knew he was not in the right place for him. After two and a half years, he left the ministry, went back to Pennsylvania, and went back into business with his father and brothers.
Three years later, his father died of heart attack. As the brothers considered how to rearrange the business among themselves, Schleenbaker knew his involvement would increase dramatically. Again, he was not sure what to do.
The very day after his father’s funeral, Schleenbaker received his third call from Elder Fagal. Schleenbaker remembers telling his wife, “If I’m ever returning to denominational employ, it has to be now.” He accepted the job, and in December of 1959, he, his wife, and two toddlers moved to Long Island, NY, where Schleenbaker assumed the position of first tenor in the Faith for Today quartet. They traveled all over, sometimes gave Weeks of Prayer, worked with Elder Fagal, sang at camp meetings, and so on. Schleenbaker said that if you added up the days of travel end to end, they were on the road for about four months out of each year.
During this time, the Faith for Today quartet and the Kings Heralds were intentionally careful not to compete with each other. In respect, Schleenbaker told me, for the Kings Heralds’ “historic position in Adventist media,” they let the Heralds make up their schedule first, before FFT made theirs. Each group started on the opposite coast, and crisscrossed the country, purposely missing each other.
But once, it didn’t work. The two quartets ended up together at the Alberta, Canada, camp meeting on the same weekend. Elders Fagal and Richards shared the pulpits, and the quartets sang at different meetings and then sang together in the evenings.
“John Thurber [second tenor for the Heralds] and I said, ‘This is working! We need to do something about it!’” Schleenbaker recounted. So the two quartets made a record together, called “We’ll All Praise God.” (Schleenbaker says that Chapel Records made a mistake. The title was supposed to be “We’ll All Praise God Together,” with emphasis on the “together.”)
Years later, in 1999-2000, the two quartets did a reunion tour together all across the country, and Schleenbaker told me, “That was absolutely heavenly to me, renewing that spirit of unity that we had with them during those last three years of our [FFT quartet’s] existence. We always had a camaraderie with the Kings Heralds. Never did we feel that we were competing.”
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
Schleenbaker continued as FFT’s first tenor for seven years, the longest tenure of any Faith for Today tenor. He said that during that time there were five different combinations of voices. The last combination, he felt, was the best blend of voices, and this was the one that traveled with the Kings Heralds. His dream was fully realized at last.
Then the axe fell.
During the quartet’s camp meeting tour in 1966, with no warning or explanation, Elder Fagal informed the men that they no longer had a job. Faith for Today was revamping their show, and would no longer have a quartet. Worse, they were told to skip the rest of camp meeting tour, go home to New York, and film as many songs as they could. “We filmed 200 songs that kept them on the air for two more years. The public never knew we were gone. We got one month’s severance pay, and nobody was given a new position. We were on our own.”
Schleenbaker was so hurt and angry that he made a decision he admits now was not a wise one. “I put myself on a gag order. I would not sing a note, not in the shower, not in church, not anywhere, for six years. I was done.” (The only exceptions were three reunions during this time, in which he sang because it felt like old times and comforted his heart.)
So much for singing evangelism. In a panic, he called the Ohio conference president for a job, and was given a small pastorate. Halfway along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traveling alone to meet his new congregation, Schleenbaker realized this was not the right choice. “I had been through this before, why was I doing it again? I knew I was not cast to be a pastor.” He stopped at a payphone, called the conference president with apologies, and went back home.
Now what? Well, the answers to that were various. Schleenbaker managed an evangelism center on Times Square, worked in Trust Services for eight years, bought a Baskin Robbins franchise in the Bronx, opened a new fast food restaurant, and ended as a corporate pilot!
But for the first several years of these widely divergent experiences, one essential thing was missing from Stan Schleenbaker’s soul. He wasn’t singing.
Until God intervened again. During his tenure at Trust Services, a group came in to hold meetings throughout the Greater New York area. The group included two couples who were singers. One wife looked at Schleenbaker and said, “I remember you! I was one of your parishioners at the Battle Creek Tabernacle!”
“She knew I’d been in the quartet,” Schleenbaker said, “and all four hounded me, begged me, and worked me over. ‘All we want you to do is come sing one song at each series!’ they insisted. And I finally broke down. That broke me, when she recognized me and put the pressure on me.”
So he sang again. And when he moved back to Collegedale and opened up his fast food restaurant, he immediately formed another quartet and began traveling through the conference again.
Schleenbaker says he lost his shirt to that fast food business. But I submit that he found his soul again. He has written his memoir and hopes it will be published soon. (Watch this site; I’ll let you know!) The title of the book is The Stained Glass Window because, he says, “I had so many different jobs, so many different positions. It took all those things to make me who I am.”
You will soon be able to read much more detail of Stanley Schleenbaker’s life in his memoir—I have reproduced the back cover material below. But I believe the important thing is, he’s still singing, and he’s still praising God.
THE STAINED GLASS WINDOW; BACK COVER COPY
Many men and women go through life knowing and doing one thing well. It may be they were fortunate enough to have reached a decision concerning their life’s work in high school or college. Some may spend their entire lives teaching, or being a pastor, or a physician. Others may be content being an auto mechanic just out of high school. All these professions are necessary to produce a well-rounded community.
However, this is not true of Stan Schleenbaker’s life. He is a community within himself. His life is full of many professions that, of themselves, could be a life-time choice. He takes us through what it is like to be a pastor and the disappointments; then a tool and die maker. His dream of someday becoming a singing evangelist is realized when he becomes the first tenor in the Faith for Today Television quartet. From there he ventures into being a Conference administrator. Eventually he ends his productive career as a jet captain, sporting an Airline Transport Pilot rating.
Stan’s life is like a stained glass window which the artisan pieces together, producing a magnificent picture out of the kaleidoscope fragments of colored glass. Church politics did not escape his exposure. He describes what it is like to be in a corporate flight department where politics are rampant there, too, with pilots climbing the professional ladder at the expense of co-workers. Stan understands what it is like to look forward to a lucrative estate left by his father only to see it decimated by two brothers. This may be a book to which the reader could identify in any one of its twenty-eight chapters garnished with pictures.
Debbonnaire Kovacs is a speaker and the author of 25 books and over 600 stories and articles for adults and children. To learn more about her work or ask her to speak at your organization, visit www.debbonnaire.com.