"The Catherine"

By Max Buzzell, June 2019

The air is cold and the leaves of the previous autumn crunch underfoot as I fumble up the steps of my family’s cottage, bucket of cleaning supplies and vacuum in hand. For 10 years now I’ve helped with this spring cleaning. There’s something exciting about taking that first step across the threshold each new season; it’s as though I’m walking into a place devoid of time, its thin boards bound together both by its history and its future.

Lovingly dubbed “The Catherine” in memory of its previous inhabitant, Catherine Stebbins, our little cottage has a past I’m still discovering. With each spring I stumble upon boxes of Catherine’s writings, stacks of old business cards, or envelopes of photos. We have our own family history here now, too. The staircase my dad and grandpa built, a box of notes I wrote back and forth with my grandma, our favorite VHS tapes stacked high.

Over the course of the time that I’ve been helping with this spring cleaning task, my reason for doing so has shifted. Initially, it was one of my ways to spend time with my grandma, Luanne. We’d wipe and we’d scrub and we’d polish; I’d pretend to be little orphan Annie, she’d try her very best to play the mean Miss Hannigan…. Once the place was clean and she and my grandpa had made the move from their house in town out to the Assembly for the summer, I spent time with her on walks to the Assembly building or by attending a church service. After my grandma passed away, I kept cleaning the cottage as a way to stay connected to those memories of her, and to make sure my grandpa had a good place to stay for the summer. Sitting on the screen porch with a good book or making a pot of coffee with my grandpa have become my new memories in this place. We discuss business (which yards we’ll mow that day), or listen to NPR and as we keep the fire burning.

Nowadays, I do some of this spring cleaning for my own stays at The Catherine. I’ve prepped the place for aunts and uncles, cousins close and distant. Recently the most exciting part of this job has been cleaning for the arrival of my oldest cousins and their kids. Watching the youngest of my family experience the Assembly for all its tennis and swimming lessons, Monday Night Dances, and chances to meet lifelong summer friends, I have observed how the Assembly has shaped and will shape many generations.

Though the Assembly has yet to stir from her winter slumber, there’s an air of anticipation as I mop the floor and wipe down the bookshelves. In just a few weeks the silent neighborhood will be busy with the sound of our summer neighbors: the accidental slamming of an old cottage screen door, the excited sound of games in the ballfield drifting over to Standish, and the sound of a bike chain backpedaling. Soon our cottage will be teeming with people too, generations of Buzzells remembering our past, enjoying our present, and knowing that the Congregational Summer Assembly will be a part of our future.

The Path to Choir Learning Part 2: The Modern Choir

By Sam Rosenblatt - August 17, 2018

After Tom Williams retired as Music Director in 1986, the Music Director Search Committee report from 1987 stated, “As we all know, we cannot find another Tom.” However, shortly after that, they auditioned Ken Cox, and as Russ Freeburg explained in “There Ought to be a Place”, “Nowhere is the continuity of the Assembly KenandTommore exemplified than in the relationship between the two men [Tom and Ken].” Tom was a mentor for Ken, who said in 2003 “I am, in many ways, walking in the footsteps of Tom Williams”. Like Tom, Ken also is a great musical educator and artist (twice turning down an offer to perform at the prominent Salzburg festival in order to come to the CSA).Kenopera1994 See picture to the right of an opera Ken was in. So after the Search Committee found that Ken fulfilled virtually every characteristic they desired (including diplomacy, patience, flexibility, cool headedness, vision, and the ability to explain and inspire), the committee unanimously recommended that Ken Cox be appointed Music Director.

Ken Cox began this position in 1988, and like Tom, he continued in that capacity even after he was appointed Managing Director in the fall of 2000. Ken immediately fit right into his role, saying in the Assembly News in 1989 that “My first summer as director was rewarded with a generous amount of encouragement and support from the choir.” The search committee seems to have been right to foresee his vision for the choir. Since Ken started, the choir has increased in attendance, expanded the number of songs per service, and experimented with a few new pieces every summer. As Steve Elrick said, “We kept on singing the songs we were singing, but Ken expanded the choir.” The committee also was right about Ken’s ability to explain and inspire, a quality that cannot be truly understood without seeing it in action, so that is just what we will do.

Wednesday, July 18th, 7:25pm, Choir Practice:


Friends drift in in twos and threes, chatting and laughing. New friends and lifelong friends, mothers and daughters, some of these people have known each other for more than half their lives, while others only feel that way. As they settle into their familiar spots according to their vocal range, conversations and laughter continue for a few more minutes across the rows with bodies cocked halfway around.

After everyone settles in, a hush swiftly falls over the crowd as Ken waves his hands for silence. There is neither need for any words to bring about this calm nor any lingering conversation—the level of mutual respect and camaraderie in the room is palpable.

The first order of business is addressing the young man in the room with the violin. Charlie Reisner is there to practice a possible prelude. While he plays, Ken listens intently. He is not afraid to push the norms of the choir, but will do so only carefully, only if this music will move the congregation. After listening and an applause, Ken moves the choir right along to rehearsal. The first song is a cold read which no one has sung before. Despite this, to my untrained ear it sounds great right off the bat. But my ear is untrained and Ken and the choir can hear they have a bit of work to do. In an interview later, Carol Gunkler will tell me that one of the things that she has improved most since joining is her ability to listen and discern whether music is being sung correctly.

AltosatPracticeDespite needing some improvement, the mood is jovial, humorous even, as they take it from the top again and Ken weaves little suggestions and encouragements seamlessly into the music in tandem with the choreographed motion of his arms. The laughs are far more abundant than the commentary and yet neither sidetracks the team from its goal. Everyone is there to learn and improve. That is what they came for, and I am told later that the success of getting a song just right after working hard on it is one of the best parts of the choir.

The next time through, Ken peppers in little “Thank you’s” at improvements in the same seamless way he peppered in his notes on runs previous. After a few runs of each song they move on to the next. When they flip to a particularly familiar song, someone comments "20 years ago this song was sung here, by THIS choir" and several of the older members eye's glaze over for a second in a daydream memory as they begin to sing the old song. Later on Steve Elrick will tell me that “Some of the sheet music was bought originally for 12 cents, but today it would cost several dollars!”

Like many things in the CSA, looking back fondly on the past does not mean we cannot stay current, and after whatBasses seems like an instant it is time for a break, and current announcements are shared by all the members of the choir who have them. Later, in an interview, Carol Gunkler said “[involvement with the choir] has strengthened my relationship with the CSA a lot. I am expanding my activities here and the nice thing is that every Wednesday night [at practice] people make announcements about things that are going on, and then since I am here every week, I hear everything that is of major importance that is going on at the CSA, and so I have been participating more in the activities.”

At the end of the practice, friends help each other up when they are experiencing trouble rising to their feet. Carol says “Some people are not able to do the things that they have traditionally done so we help them. And it is a very, its, ya know, cohesive. We take care of each other.” Once everyone is on their feet with a song in their hearts, they say farewell and leave as friends, ready to meet on Sunday.

TenorsBut for many of them, they will see each other well before Sunday. Liz Gottlieb said, “I have a gazillion friends because of choir. I meet so many people in choir. Some of them are people I might have met anyway, but I know so many people because of choir that no one else in my family knows and that I would never have run into. And even people I do not have a chance to hang out with I look forward to seeing in the choir. I care about them, if I learn something about their health it matters to me, they care about me.” Carol Gunkler also said that joining the choir this year has strengthened and expanded her relationships “Its better than joining a fraternity. This is a special niche of people with whom you have much in common. There are some people in the choir who encouraged me to try out for the operetta, which I did. I’ve met some new people and realized they are relatives of people I had known earlier. There is one person in the choir with whom I have had lunch on a couple of occasions as a result of being in the choir and sitting next to each other.” Liz Gottlieb puts it another way, “It's so much fun. Some time ago I realized ‘just face it, these are your peeps’. We are a huge variety bunch, we believe everything different possible. But we all join together and work on something, and its fun.”

Not only friendships, but also family bonds can be strengthened through the choir. With multi-generational, spanning families participating, like theSopranosatpractice Coopers, Gottliebs, Winters, Dennisons, Royles, and the Shaws, the choir provides a rare activity that families can enjoy together regardless of age. As Liz Gottlieb says “This is THE CSA difference. All the ages are available. You can be in choir when you’re 13. You can be in choir when you’re 94. We aren’t there because of anything that has to do with age. It transcends that. I like that about the CSA and the choir is a really great example. It is a meeting of many generations. It’s so cool.”


Another bond that can be strengthened through the choir is the bond of your spirit. Ken has quoted St. Augustine several times, saying, “He who sings prays twice”, but members of the choir feel this connection between the music and their spirit goes beyond that. As Carol Gunkler says, the choir “deepens my appreciation for the people that could create this kind of music and sound and have the genius to put this together. And it simply underscores my belief that this (gestures at the world) is not an accident. This is an intentional world. The creation of music is, in a microcosm, the creation of the world. You see, if you can do something like that, then you can do other things that beautiful.” Similarly, Liz Gottlieb finds that while “I feel in touch with the divine when I listen to or make music. When we sing ‘How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place’, which I think most of the choir would realize is their favorite if they thought about it, if somebody, in a careful, fabulous manner has brought those words to life with the most glorious music and you are singing it with groups of people…it’s a very powerful spiritual moment.”

If ever there was a song sung in church that makes you feel like that, then come next season and join and sing it, with friends.

Getting More People Involved in the Arts

August 1, 2018

We are lucky to have in our CSA community writers, poets, novelists, playwrights, biographers, actors, directors, producers, painters, potters, dancers, singers, musicians and a plethora of other artistic talents. Some people who have professionally gone into a number of artistic careers got their starts in operettas, participating in arts and crafts and singing in the Sunday choir.

ArtistAlong with our regular operettas, arts and crafts classes, authors and artisans gatherings, and concerts, over the years many other events have taken place. As Stunt Night was revived, it became clear that not only does the CSA love fun cultural events, but also loves to share serious creativity. Poetry recitation, serious music and story reading sometimes have shown up in the Stunt Night programing, along with silly and playful offerings. Looking back through Assembly history in the past plays were performed along with--or instead of--operettas. In recent years, different members of our community have offered some inspiring artistic events. Bruce Clements directed a reader’s theater performance of the play “The Winslow boy” by Terrence Rattigan; Gibson family members have offered magical evenings of poetry and music.

So, how did the Arts Committee happen? A few years ago, a group of CSAers started talking about expanding arts programing. A proposal was brought before the Board of Trustees and the Arts Committee was formed in the fall of 2015 and started activities last summer. The first co-chairs of the committee were Barb Perry and Jane Taylor. While Barb leads the CSA as President this year, Jane Taylor leads our artistic community as the chairperson of the Arts Committee.

The Arts Committee hopes to achieve two things: first, we have many creative ideas and are looking for individuals who will take charge of making them a reality; second, we want to support artistic endeavors at the Assembly. So when a member of our community dreams up something to try out here, we want to encourage and facilitate those dreams. We especially encourage active participation in the arts—not just passive spectating (fun though it may be!)


This year, the arts are alive and well at the CSA in many of the usual ways that our community is used to seeing including Stunt Night, Artist Workshops (with help from the Women’s Association), periodic poetry challenges, and a book discussion group. All these current offerings were created or supported by the Arts Committee.

Two new workshops demonstrate the goals of the Arts Committee. Friday afternoon writing gatherings were created because a member of the committee, Julia Gibson, felt writers would benefit from the focus and intention in gathering to write. Friday afternoons at 2:00pm in the Lounge, all are welcome to join the quiet gathering of writers, whatever your area of writing might be.

Another workshop was created when members of the committee noticed that sometimes participants felt lost in the arts workshops. We thought it would be useful to offer solid training in basic drawing skills, a training that is missing from so many people’s background. We approached Judy Dawley about starting a series of instructional art classes to help people develop those skills. On Thursday afternoons the packed class consists of people of every experience level. Everyone learns something new. Judy has a strong background in teaching artistic skills, and she was the perfect person to create this series of classes. She offering a total of six classes this summer each concentrating on different skills. Come join us Thursday afternoons, July 12 – August 16, from 2-4pm in the Assembly Building.

In the future, the committee wants to help artists with whatever they dream of doing here. We can imagine things like a Reader’s Theater, instrumental music groups, hymn-writing workshops, trees-in-art celebrations, storytelling evenings at the fire pit, open mic performances, photography gatherings and plein air painting throughout the Assembly. We hope to coordinate events with the Spiritual Life Committee, with whom we feel we have some overlap of interest, and also with Ecology and Youth programming.

So bring your own ideas – we want to hear them! Ask for support from the Arts Committee whenever you want help creating a new activity. New members who are ready to work on some aspect of the programing are welcome to join the committee. We look forward to fanning the flame of creativity in many new ways. We hope you are enjoying the activities we have started and would love to hear from you!

The Path to Choir Learning Part 1: How the CSA Choir has Changed Over Time

By Sam Rosenblatt - August 10, 2018


There are so many activities to do at the CSA that one might assume have always been part of our culture. Most, however, did not come to be until as recently as a generation or two ago. There were no swimming lessons until 1931, Monday night dancing did not begin until 1954, and the first Cottage Treasures sale was not until 1976. There is one activity though older than any other, older than any building on the grounds, which has been here since the CSA moved to Frankfort: The Assembly Choir.


Beginning in 1904, the choir is older even than all three versions of the auditorium it now sings in, first performing in a large tent with a “Good sized pipe organ” but which “rain poured in upon at every vulnerable point”, then in the auditorium donated by Dr. R. J. Bennett in 1912. After the collapse of that one in 1959 they performed for “…nine Sunday outdoor services in a beautiful setting without a drop of rain” while “churchgoers donated huge sums” to build a new roof over their heads. When the auditorium again collapsed in 1962, they kept right on singing.

From the beginning, assembly members and visitors have remarked at how exceptionally talented the choir is. In 1906 after a benefit recital, the Rev. Nichols wrote “There is more talent in these woods than one dreams of.”, and in the 1921 Assembly News the program committee remarked that “No one thing, perhaps, has contributed more to our enjoyment and inspiration [than music].” Who is to say why this has always been the case? It could be due to the “ringy” acoustics beloved by choir member Liz Gottlieb, the “unusually high proportion of professional musicians” or the great directors lauded by long time admirer, first year choir member Carol Gunkler. Regardless, the choir seems to be sticking to its tried and true formula.

Throughout the past 70 years the adult choir has undergone very few major changes. While new members join every year and sometimes the practice schedule changes, in “There Ought to be a Place”, Russ Freeburg writes that “It is probable that the Assembly Choir has turned over completely only once in its history” and “The choir is steeped in tradition. The first time members join the choir each summer, they stand to introduce themselves. They tell where they are from and relate news about their activities over the previous winter.” And in the past 72 years we have only had 2 different permanent choir directors (although there were 11 before that).


Perhaps the longest lasting change that the choir has undergone was the creation and slow dissolution of Children’s Choir. Founded in 1911 by then music director Margaret L. Weber, the Children’s Choir, sometimes called the “Children’s Vocal Training Club” or the “Junior Choir” functioned both as a youth activity, singing kid’s songs just for fun like “Happy Lil’ Sal” and going on beach picnics, and also as a precursor to the adult choir, occasionally performing hymns during Sunday service. This children’s choir was immediately a success and had high participation.


It was a regular feature of the program when Mary P. Niemann became music director in 1928. Mrs. Niemann was a constant force at the Assembly for a long time, serving as the third longest running Music Director from 1928 to 1941 until wartime had other priorities for her as it did for many in the CSA. A force she was though, backed by one of the longest running assembly presidents and another spitfire, Katherine Macy Noyes, Niemann solidified stunt night and added the children’s operetta to the list of programs in 1931 for good. Not long after, the children’s choir and operetta were linked, with many of the children who were in one also ending up in the other.

Today, even without an influx of youth, the choir is still in great shape. Despite the age imbalance, choir attendance remains as strong as ever, as you can see in the visualization below. Compared to the 70’s and 80’s, average and peak attendance are up and even the least attended Sundays have more members going now than then—a statistic that is even more impressive considering the fact that families tend to spend shorter visits here then they used to. These ChoirAttendancestatistics were made possible due to the methodical, record-keeping of long-time choir director Tom Williams, who took attendance at choir every Sunday without fail and started that tradition of name-signing that continues today. In 2001, archivist Tammy Royle wrote to Ken Cox that “Of course Tom had a reason for taking attendance each Sunday. He was an athlete so he kept ‘stats’!” 

This kind of methodical, by the book, attitude was characteristic of Tom Williams and extended beyond the attendance ledger. Known for his morning sweeping routine and his systematic daily naps, Tom Williams was said to be a “technician” when it came to music. According to Carol Gunkler, “Tom was a builder. He did it piece by piece. Current Music Director Ken Cox is much more focused on what goes out. He is more focused on developing this wonderful sound and getting it out to the congregation. I don’t want to say Tom was more mechanical, it was just an entirely different approach.”

Beginning his era as Music Director in 1946 after his friend Carter Davidson signed him up to direct the music and waterfront of the CSA (allegedly against Tom’sTomEmilieChoir wishes) and continuing until 1986, Tom Williams is the longest running director to date. When he began as choir director Tom was already deeply familiar with choral music. As a child his father had directed two choirs with no formal training, and Tom sang in one of them. At 17 Tom came in second in a state-wide singing competition and was asked to join the famous Lima Elks Male Chorus. In college he sang in two church choirs and as a young adult he performed in countless shows and re-founded the Galesburg Community Chorus (and was the deciding vote in favor of inviting African-Americans to be a part of it). By the time he became music director of the CSA he was already the Chairman of the Music Department at Knox College, oversaw both the men’s and women’s glee clubs there, and even had a side job as assistant director of the choir at historic St. David’s Episcopal Church. In his words “The music I could handle, but swimming lessons-even at swimming-I was a novice.”

Although by all accounts he did a tremendous job running the waterfront, based on his musical background it made sense that when he was tapped to step in and become Managing Director in the middle of the season of 1957, he chose to give up the waterfront job but keep the position of Music Director. He led the choir for another 30 years before retiring. At that point, in an effort to find a new music director the board tried out several promising candidates for a few weeks each in the summer of 1987 including Tede Holt, Daniel Brill, and Ken Cox.

Hang on for Part II next week for a look at the choir in the modern age.

Who cares about the Itch?

By Alan Marble - July 19, 2018

Who cares about the Itch? Everyone who loves our beautiful Crystal Lake!

CrystalswimSwimmer’s itch has dominated discussion around the CSA for several years. A natural phenomenon, it is an allergic rash reaction being mistaken for a host species by a nearly invisible parasite (cercaria), which has gone through its life cycle and is searching for yet a new host. One of the links in its life cycle in Crystal Lake is the common merganser, a fish-eating duck that thrives in the lake’s clear, cool water where its brood of ducklings find ample minnows and fry to sustain them.

Enough about the “itch.” What is being done about it? The Crystal Lake & Watershed Association (CLWA) has dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars it has raised to research and combat the insidious “itch.” Employing a private sector company, Swimmer’s Itch Solutions, the CLWA has worked with public input to locate, trap and relocate broods of merganser ducklings under a permit from the Michigan Department Of Natural Resources (MI DNR). While the adult hens may very well find their way back to Crystal Lake in the subsequent spring, their ducklings “imprint” on their new location and should return there in following years to breed. Relocation settings are approved by the MI DNR, and are waters near enough to be practicable, but far enough to deter a duckling’s return. These settings lack one or more elements of the complicated lifestyle chain that perpetuates the “itch.” The trap-and-relocate program is in its second year through the CLWA. Click this link to report a common merganser nest or brood on Crystal Lake.

Some simple numbers…

In 2017, 14 broods of mergansers were captured and relocated. A total of 116 ducklings were relocated along with 10 hens. To date in 2018, 16 broods have been captured and relocated, totalling at least 105 ducklings and 7 hens (three broods relocated late this week included an unknown number of birds as of this writing). 

Scientific analysis of snail samples (a key element in the life cycle of the parasite that causes swimmer’s itch), in 2016 showed a ratio of infection in the snails of 1/100 sampled. The sample in 2018 showed a significant reduction, in which only 1 of every 350 snails sampled were infected.

The CSA has worked closely with the CLWA by recording statistics on the waterfront that reflect the number of swimmers each day (broken down by morning and afternoon); the incidence of rashes reported (similarly broken down); the wind direction and velocity, and water temperature. Leslie Ritter, CSA Waterfront Director, and her staff have done a remarkable job in documenting these factors on a daily basis for a period of 6 years.

Trying to compare apples to apples, some numbers from two years - 2016 pre-program and 2018 the second year of program.

  • 2016: 1,557 persons reported swimming 109 reported cases of rash/itch
  • 2018: 3,016 persons reported swimming 25 reported cases of rash/itch (from start of season through July 18)kidsCrystal

While this information is perhap a bit anecdotal, taken as a whole it shows that the efforts of the CLWA are working towards reducing the natural phenomenon of swimmer’s itch to an acceptable level. Leslie Ritter told me she was holding her breath when the 4th of July week began, and she was thrilled that the incidence of “itch” remained so low. Parents are letting their kids swim again, and today was a classic reminder of what a unique jewel we are in temporary custody of - Crystal Lake.

The CLWA is hard at work to preserve this resource for generations to come on many levels: the “itch,” the spread of invasive species, working with local units of government to protect sensitive habitats and limit non-point pollution, and so on. If you are not already a member, please join the CLWA to insure the lake’s qualities for generations to come. Come to the CLWA annual meeting this Saturday, July 21st, at the CSA Assembly Building beginning at 9:30 am. You will see many familiar faces, and you will help insure our mutual future.