COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – Axel Theimer knew something was up.
A bouquet of flowers that was supposed to arrive at his house had instead arrived at his office. It was a congratulatory bouquet for his impending retirement after 52 years as a music professor and director of the chamber choir at St. John's University and College of St. Benedict.
But when he walked out onto the stage of the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater for Tuesday afternoon's rehearsal of the schools' mixed chamber choir, he had no idea the emotions that would burst out.
A video played on a screen. Words flashed: "Singing for a Lifetime: A Song for Axel." Scores of panels of faces popped up, each recorded individually on Zoom and mixed together. Nearly 200 voices — each of them one of Theimer's students, from the class of 1971 to the class of 2024 — melded as one, a coda to a career in teaching music.
"Singing, singing, all the singing! There was so much singing then!" the voices harmonized to the Ron Jeffers song "I Have Had Singing." "We all sang, and that was my pleasure, too."
Tears welled up in the professor's eyes: A half-century of students, paying a virtual pandemic homage to the man who has become an institution on this idyllic Stearns County campus. On a computer, nearly 100 former faculty and students watched.
As the song ended, Theimer turned to his current students, sitting socially distanced in the auditorium, and asked: "How come you didn't sing along?"
The professor laughed, then turned back to the group watching on Zoom: "I see nobody with a glass of wiiiiine! Come on, that's disappointing. Where's the Jagermeister?"
He quickly turned his attention to the rehearsal, and it was easy to tell why for 52 years this native of Austria has had a love affair with these two adjoined Benedictine schools, and the schools with him.
He is a man who teaches love of music before he teaches anything technical about music: "I teach playing music and how does it move you," he said. "Do you feel a difference in your body when you listen to this kind of music. That's the power of music."
"He helped build a university through the music program," said Eugene McAllister, interim president at St. John's. "We're a Catholic university, and music is very important to us. Axel was able to take that core and make it so integral in how we see ourselves and how the world sees us."
The journey from Austria to St. John's began in 1958, when a 12-year-old Axel was singing in the Vienna Boys' Choir. They toured the United States, and for a few February days, they stayed in the dorms at St. John's. When he was in Minnesota, he did not take any photographs of the St. John's campus, but he took plenty of Bemidji's statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Still, the school stuck with him. The student who lent Theimer his room also gifted him a Johnnies sweatshirt. Theimer took the shirt back to Austria and wore it constantly until he grew out of it. That sweatshirt was a lasting connection.
In 1969, another Austrian, Gerhard Track, left the position of choral director, and he recommended Theimer. It was an odd choice; the 23-year-old Theimer had conducted the Chorus Viennensis, a male choir made up of former members of the Vienna Boys' Choir, but he had studied at veterinary school and wanted to take over his great-uncle's veterinary practice in Vienna.
But something intervened. Coincidence? Or fate?
"Yes, it was coincidence, but it was also not," Theimer said. "You can always make those connections and see things after the fact. At the moment, when it all happened, I didn't know if I was going to succeed at St. John's. I was coming here without a degree in music but with lots of experience. But I really enjoyed very much what I was doing. We seemed to have a sense of success. And I started to say, 'This is a place where I could stay.' "
Kim Kasling, a music professor at St. John's, has been on a dozen or so international trips with Theimer and the chamber choir. He sees Theimer as a Renaissance man, as interested in history as he is in music. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Theimer insisted they organize a trip to the former Soviet satellite states. Whenever the choir visited Germany, Theimer made certain the students visited concentration camps like Dachau and Buchenwald.
"His loyalty to this place is just unequaled," Kasling said. "Many nights during the school year, you can come by here at 9:30 or 10 p.m. and all the office lights are off except Axel's."
Students and faculty hope that Theimer will have an encore on campus, whether it's helping with recruiting or with alumni relations or fundraising for musical scholarships.
But first, he wants to spend time with family. The soon-to-be 75-year-old wants to see more of his three children and five grandchildren, who range in age from 5 to 16; he's only seen them on FaceTime or Zoom during the pandemic. Once COVID has run its course, he's hoping to take his entire family on an extended trip to Austria. They'll visit his brother in Vienna. They'll head to Salzburg, where he spent one semester.
And they'll head to the ski resort village in the Alps where he grew up. He hasn't visited in decades.
The place's name is, appropriately enough, St. Johann in Tirol. Johann is the name John in German. In a way, he's been a Johnny since he was born.