Hope Floats: Alumnus Paul Wargo's creativity returns to the 'Berg

Paul Wargo knew his future plans when he was in high school. When asked about it by his choir director and lifelong mentor, the late Ted Hieronymus, Heidelberg class of ’65, Paul was fairly certain, “I’m going into business.” 

“Why?” Mr. Hieronymus asked. “My dad says all this music stuff is fun, but you can’t make a living with it.” And then Mr. Hieronymus looked at him and gave Paul the piece of advice that would change his life: “There’s always a place for someone who’s good at what they do.” 

Paul began his career at Heidelberg University (then, Heidelberg College) in 1976. Still convinced by his father, Paul began his future as a music merchandising major – a derivative of the business program at the time. Still, Paul decided to spend as much of his time as he could in Brenneman Music Hall, taking music classes and doing what music majors do. It wasn’t long into his studies that he changed his major to music education. 

In spite of his passion for music in high school, Paul found himself with “zero confidence” in music during those first few days. Although not an official music major, he did take many music placement tests that were necessary for him to get to sign up for some fun music classes, such as music theory. While waiting in the hall, nervous for the next test on his schedule, he was relieved to find the first of many friendly faces. “There were two students sitting on the floor who stuck out their hands.” The two boys introduced themselves, and invited Paul to go out to eat with them after their placement test was over. Struck by their openness and friendly nature, Paul agreed and they would become some of the many lifelong friends he made while at Heidelberg. 

With placement tests over, Paul was suddenly a full-fledged student – and struggling with his confidence in the techniques he was learning. But part of Ted Hieronymus’s pitch about Heidelberg was about to be proven. “The folks at Heidelberg aren’t just accomplished professionals, they're also good teachers.” Paul remembered Ted saying, “There’s always somebody to study with.” 

So when one vocal technique, in particular, wasn’t connecting, Paul reached out to the music-building favorite, and senior at the time, Bob Godfrey. Bob was happy to help the determined freshman, and conducted some mini-private lessons a half-dozen times, or so. “He really freed me up as a singer,” Paul recalled, reminiscing on the confidence boost that the individual help had brought him. Paul ended up winning the Hoernemann Vocal Award his Sophomore year, which he happily attributes to Bob’s help. 

Paul was not only a budding singer. At the time, he additionally played in a night club Disco band, and knew that to continue to work on his skills as a performer and future music teacher, he needed help with the piano. At the time, he couldn’t afford the tuition for Heidelberg’s regular piano lessons, but he knew that he would “learn better from someone who would be tough on me, and critique me.” That extra help came from Professor Eric Roth. Eric, still a close friend to Paul, was a professor of clarinet, piano, orchestra and conducting at the time. Better yet, Paul knew that Eric was “as tough as could be.” So Paul worked up his courage, and pulled Eric aside to ask for personal lessons. 

“I could pay you $5 a week,” Paul offered at the end of his pitch. “How many hours a week will you practice?” Eric fired back. Without much thought, Paul replied, “three.” Apparently satisfied with that, Eric told him, “8 o’clock, Friday mornings.” and walked away. Their lessons went on all year. “I learned so much from that guy,” Paul shared. One piece of music, in particular, had a middle section that Paul just couldn’t master and after many weeks of practicing it he asked, frustrated, “What am I doing wrong?”

Dr. Roth responded, “Is there a motif, a melody in the music, that’s in that middle section?”

“Yes.”

“So play it,” Eric instructed. After a few more fumbles and corrections, suddenly Paul was playing the middle section perfectly. “What just happened?” he asked.

“You were trying to play the notes instead of the music,” Eric explained, “Sound begets technique, not the other way around. You are here to study music, so to do so you must hear it and play it.” The shock and joy of the lesson sunk it, and Paul knew he would continue to come back to that truth throughout the rest of his music career and his life, wherever that would lead him. That dedication of his professors and the ability to have real conversations with them remains a fond memory for Paul. 

During his time, he grew very fond of the late Dr. Ferris Ohl, “who taught me the beauty and interpretation of music,” and who additionally taught Ted Hieronymus during his time at Heidelberg. Paul remained close with Ted Hieronymus, and grew to know Ted’s wife, Jane, daughter of the iconic coach Paul Hoernemann, after whom the Heidelberg’s stadium and refectory are named. Paul began to think of Dr. Ohl and Ted Hieronymus as his “music genealogy” – his musical family line, as it were. Although when he began his music career at Heidelberg, he was insecure and frustrated, the professors “not only pushed me, but just encouraged me with an I can do it mentality,” he added. 

So when graduation had come and gone in the spring of 1980, Paul knew how he wanted his story to progress. After a year teaching in Bowling Green, Ohio he moved to Los Angeles and after a few years teaching, pursued graduate school at California State University in Long Beach, graduating with a Master of Arts in Choral Conducting. During his time there he was awarded the Karen Carpenter (who graduated from Cal-State) Memorial Scholarship, and was able to study with the late choral and composing master, Frank Pooler. He was able to keep up with the “big dogs” of the L.A. music scene, which he attributes to the confidence boost and skills he learned at Heidelberg. “I would have been lost had it not been for the personal attention I received at The Berg, which gave me some confidence to stretch my skills further,” he explained. Paul went on to sing back-up vocals for vocalist Ray Conniff and create an arrangement for radio broadcaster Dr. Demento. He even conducted the L.A. Philharmonic as they accompanied the children’s choir he was directing at the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service. 

As so many great experiences mounted, Paul continued to teach music. He became an inspiring force to students, like Ted Hieronymus was to him – and continued to support Heidelberg throughout his career, and keep in close contact with his Heidelberg family. When Ted passed away in 2019, Paul was able to put together a 108-voice strong alumni choir to sing at his funeral. The group performed one of Ted’s favorite songs to teach his choirs, The Lord Bless You and Keep You. Jane (Hoernemann) Hieronymus thanked him after the funeral. “You were very special to Ted and me, and you still are,” she told the misty-eyed Paul, who continues to stay in contact with their family. 

After 36 years as a high school music technology and choir teacher, a college choir director, and a church choir director, Paul retired. In spite of that retirement, he continued to work in a world where he had only previously dabbled – arranging and composing. When Paul’s Heidelberg roommate contacted him last year about having recommended him to a colleague who needed a choral piece written, he was happy to compose the piece for St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Sandusky, Ohio. The church was celebrating its music director, who had served the parish for 40 years. After several other composers backed out, the church was especially grateful for Paul’s last-minute help. They even flew him to Ohio to watch the performance of the piece he composed. 

Thrilled seeing his piece performed live, and yet to relinquish his critique-seeking nature, Paul reached out to Dr. Greg Ramsdell. “I wanted to hear a college choir perform a piece I had written,” Paul noted, “and see what I could improve upon as a writer. I asked Greg if he would take a look at my recent work and perhaps agree that I could write a piece for Heidelberg. He responded that he would love to have me do just that.”

The pair discussed this year’s theme for the choir’s concert, “Hope Floats.” Paul, loving the title, was inspired to create a piece around it. After a few drafts, Paul began working, combining his own expertise with the style of the Heidelberg choir. “After I had ‘found’ the sound of his choir in my head it was a complete joy to find ideas for the text and for his singers.” The final result was premiered at the choir’s home concert in late April and is being performed on their spring tour: 
Hope floats on a moment of love. 

Upon the words that were left us as shelter. 

Upon the spirit of truth we wait and wonder here. 

Our weary souls as ransom for a promise of hope. 

We wait on you. Be still for you. Rest in you. In a spirit of peace. In the gentle hand that moves us closer to grace. 

We will wait and wonder here. We wait on you. 

Be still for you. We rest in you, in love. 

Throughout his retirement, it’s safe to say that Paul’s creative spirit has been hard at work. Alongside the creation of these two songs, Paul has also recently published a book of poetry, titled “Collateral Beauty.” And he is thrilled to continue to create more. Recently, he’s begun writing another piece for the Zion Lutheran Church Senior Choir in Sandusky, directed by his close friend and fellow Heidelberg graduate, Ron Albert ’80. “ I want to continue to write and look for groups to write for!” Paul added. 
As for the upcoming performances of “Hope Floats,” Paul is thrilled to be able to reconnect with the Heidelberg music program in this way. When he saw a recording of the students singing it during a rehearsal on social media, “it was a very emotional and proud moment for me,” he shared. “Yes, a little tear came to my eye and I am really looking forward to hearing the entire performance. It’s truly one of the highlights of my life.” 

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