A couple of weeks have gone by now since the sad news of Fred Sturm’s passing. I had the great honor of studying with Fred while at Lawrence University. I’ve been thinking constantly about all he gave me and wanted to get my thoughts written down. If you knew Fred, maybe some of this will ring true with you as well. If you never had the opportunity to meet him, let this be a glance at why he will be missed by so many. If you have a memory of Fred that you want to share, please leave a comment; I’d love to hear other experiences with him.
I had been warned by Mr. Wiele, one of my high school directors and a former student of Fred’s, to watch out for Professor Sturm as I started at Lawrence. He warned me about his joking nature and advised that I never, EVER get into a prank war with Fred because there would be no hope of winning. Fred and Mr. Wiele had been involved in an elaborate game of Hide & Seek for years – the object of the game was a statuette of Louis Armstrong, lovingly called “The Louie.” My high school friends and I had been hearing about this elusive “Louie” since we started with Mr. Wiele and the dastardly Fred Sturm who was supposedly keeping it captive against its will. When my friends – Carl and Ken – and I first met Fred, we asked: “What’s the deal with the Louie?” Fred, whose wit was fast and sharp came back right away: “You’re Wiele’s boys, aren’t you? I can tell you three are no good. Go back to Kenosha and tell Wiele that he’ll never get his hands on the Louie!” We tried a few different times to get the Louie away from Fred, but no matter what, he always managed to stay three steps ahead of us. I suppose it was all the years of practice he had with Prof. Keelan just down the hall and all of their pranks. It was understood – Fred always won. When Mr. Wiele was given the reins of a new high school program in Kenosha, Fred sent the Louie as a congratulatory gift. Fred knew how to joke, but his joking was equally proportionate to the amount of care he had for you.
I didn’t work directly with Fred until my second year at Lawrence, but I knew from watching his jazz ensemble as a freshman that I needed to work with him in some way. It was a strange, gut feeling that I hadn’t experienced before. I could tell that studying under Fred would be something special, even if I didn’t know the goal or have an idea of what the finished product might be. When I finally got to work with him, I knew I had a lot of homework to do. I worked my butt off trying to keep up in his jazz ensemble while studying to get through his theory and pedagogy classes. Through his composition classes, he started me down the writing path. I was pushed harder in that class than I had been to that point, but made some of my strongest relationships with the other students in that class – it was as though Fred had planned that we would all be friends and put us in that room for that reason. We learned to write because we learned to communicate with each other. I often wish I could have been a fly on the wall during my lessons with Fred. It was constantly amazing to come to some conclusion that I thought I had discovered, only to later find that it had been subtly planted by Fred. He didn’t teach by showing you the answer, but made you think deeply about the problem before exploring every possible avenue that could solve it.
I got into trouble with Fred once, and it was awful. I wish I had thought to use his problem solving tools then. I never saw Fred actually get angry at someone or something – he would express disappointment, and that was the worst feeling of all. He held all of us to an incredibly high standard, both musically and personally; anytime you feel below that standard, you knew from Fred’s response. Letting him down and losing his respect was one of the hardest lessons I learned in my time with him. Thankfully, Fred was also an extremely gracious man, so it lasted only as long as it took for me to learn. Before too long, Fred welcomed me back and continued to push me higher.
The last time I saw Fred, I had just moved home from Oregon and was visiting Jazz Weekend. Fred wrapped me up in a great, big bear hug and told me that he had to run – understandable, considering the size and scope of the festival. I was able to catch him for a minute once more after the jazz ensemble played. He welcomed me back to the midwest and promised that we would be in touch as the school year unwound. We occasionally would catch up, and he continued to play a role in my real-world education. Even now, the lessons he gave me come up all the time. Every piece I write inevitably contains a Fred-ism. When I direct a jazz ensemble or run a professional rehearsal, I can hear Fred’s words and see his rehearsal techniques coming through me.
Mr. Wiele warned me that my time with Fred would go by way too fast. Sadly, it turns out that Fred’s time went by way too fast. The lives he has touched are countless and the legacy he leaves behind is as massive as his indomitable spirit.
He was so much more than a teacher, director, or mentor. He was one of the most unapologetically warm and giving people I have ever been fortunate to count as a friend. Rest in peace, Fred. The world misses you so much more than you know.