HESSTON, Kan. — Rebecca Eichelberger’s journey to Hesston College started in 1949 when her great-grandfather saw the importance of a Mennonite education for his own daughter, Rebecca’s grandmother Leona (Goossen) Saltzman.
Leona’s arrival at Hesston Academy, the college’s high school, in 1949 marked the start of a three-generation tradition for Rebecca’s family. For each generation — Rebecca, her mother Jenny (Saltzman) Eichelberger and Leona — music has played an integral role in the Hesston experience even as the music program has grown, changed and thrived.
“I was excited to go to Hesston College,” said Leona, a 1952 Hesston Academy graduate from Shickley, Neb. “I saw it as an adventure.”
For a 15-year-old leaving her western Kansas home for the first time to attend high school halfway across the state, it was an adventure filled with new experiences.
Leona came to Hesston College with a musical background as a violin player. Her first year was also the advent of the first instrument on campus — a 1909 Steinway grand piano, which would nurture future generations of performers, including her own descendants.
On the campus rich in traditional Mennonite four-part, a cappella singing, Leona auditioned for the choir— her first experience with an organized choir. She remembers classmates warning her that her inexperience would prevent her from getting in, but that was not the case.
“Maybe I got in because I could sing second soprano and read music,” Leona said.
Opportunities in music and academics are a cherished part of Leona’s experience, like choirs closing their concerts with the “Hallelujah” chorus, a tradition that still gets lived out through the college’s occasional performance of Handel’s Messiah during Thanksgiving Weekend. Those memories prompted Leona to encourage her daughter and granddaughter to attend Hesston for similar experiences.
“It was important for me to take Bible classes so I could teach Sunday school and Bible school,” Leona said. “I wanted to have a good educational background and grow spiritually. My hope is that I encouraged Jenny and Rebecca to make Hesston College part of their lives.”
Music a drawing point
Music involvement opportunities were a drawing point for both Jenny and Rebecca, even though it was not their major.
Jenny, a 1988 Hesston graduate, studied education and is now an elementary school teacher in Geneva, Neb. She participated in choir and took private piano and organ lessons at Hesston. Being involved in music at Hesston allowed her to expand her musical abilities and nurture her love for music.
“I remember an evening when I went over to the church to practice the organ,” Jenny said. “I practiced my pieces and I was a bit frustrated because I was a pianist, not an organist. My touch was not correct for the organ, and I was struggling. I started playing hymns as loud as I could make that organ pipe. I remember feeling really close to God that night and thinking he did not care if my touch wasn’t quite right.”
Choir tours have been a part of Hesston’s music program for decades. Jenny recalls them fondly.
“I often refer to my choir tours as a bit of heaven,” said Jenny. “The group got along well, and our sharing time before concerts prepared our hearts. Our concerts really felt like a worship service. Those experiences helped me grow spiritually and build lasting relationships.”
Rebecca has heard her mother’s tour stories and other transformational Hesston experiences all her life and has known from an early age that she wanted to make those kinds of memories.
Jenny’s own spiritual growth through her experiences is why she has always promoted Hesston College to Rebecca and her two younger siblings.
“In our house, talk about college was always when you go to Hesston,” Jenny said. “Not if.”
Rebecca’s own choir tours have lived up to her childhood expectations and have been a highlight for the education major who takes private voice lessons and is a member of Bel Canto Singers, the college’s premiere choir.
She is looking forward to the International Chorale trip to Europe in May.
“I am enthusiastic to see what relationships and experiences my trip to Europe will bring,” she said. “The experience was very enriching for my mom, so since I was little I knew that going to Europe while at Hesston was something that I just had to experience, too.”