Frank Asenbrenner, legendary Hill-Murray band director, dies

Longtime Hill-Murray educator Frank Asenbrenner poses with his daughter Peg Sutherland.
Longtime Hill-Murray educator Frank Asenbrenner poses with his daughter Peg Sutherland. (file photo)

The flash of the brass instruments, the pounding of the drums, the trim green-and-white uniforms and precision stepping have made the Hill-Murray band a source of pride for alumni and neighbors for years at games and along parade routes.

But perhaps most iconic for several generations of students and their parents was the sight of Frank Asenbrenner marching proudly alongside his students, his tall frame and high stepping the embodiment of flair.

Others will remember "Mr. A" in front of the concert and musical-theater "pit band," drawing emotion out of his charges with a flick of his conductor's baton.

The fortunate -- his former students -- remember an inspiring educator whose personal attention encouraged them to better performances than they thought possible.

Asenbrenner died Dec. 31 at the age of 82.

Principal, superintendent, director

The multitalented and seemingly tireless Asenbrenner served as the principal at Archbishop Murray girls' school in 1969. He carried on the role for the newly formed co-ed school in 1972 when Murray and the Christian Brothers' Hill boys' school combined,

Asenbrenner, born in Leopolis, Wisconsin, had earned a music education degree from the University of St. Thomas. He taught at St. Agnes High School for seven years and Humboldt High School for eight before being hired at Murray.

Asenbrenner was a principal for 16 years, overseeing projects such as excavating and expanding the Hill Murray building's lower level, completing the school's science wing and adding art rooms and additional classroom space.

Hill-Murray's field house and Higgins Memorial Field were also completed during his tenure.

Throughout those times, Asenbrenner was also the leader of Hill-Murray's music programs, pioneering the first-ever band trip in 1978 and starting a tradition of such trips.

He also spread his enthusiasm for music far beyond Hill-Murray, to Catholic elementary schools in the area. Beginning with 50 students in 1982, the elementary band program reached into both the East Side and neighboring suburbs and at its peak had 500 students involved.

Asenbrenner also boosted the role of musical and community theater, not only to develop young singers and actors but to strengthen community ties. The school's tradition of Christmas musicals, a special community Christmas choir and its role in hosting community theater productions were all his creation.

In 1987, Asenbrenner was named superintendent, and coordinated the addition of middle school offerings at Hill-Murray.

In 1990, he stepped down from the superintendency in order to focus more on Hill-Murray's music program.

"Mr. Music" to all

According to a 1994 Review article noting a celebration of Asenbrenner's 25 years with the Murray and Hill-Murray schools, he was also an ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and had held membership in national and regional organizations of Catholic schools.

Quoted at the time, Mark Paulson, himself a 17-year veteran of drama education and directing musical theater productions, described Asenbrenner as "the heart and soul of Hill-Murray."

Barb Atkinson, one of Asenbrenner's daughters who played under his direction, said, "He set the bar high -- and that wasn't to be the best musicians. It was to be the best people they could be."

Asenbrenner went on to found Ashland Productions, a nonprofit community theater group, in 1997. He and daughters Barb and Peg, along with Peg's husband Rob Sutherland, grew the organization into a multifaceted theater education and performance group headquartered at the Maplewood Community Center, offering youth classes, in-school residency programs, summer camps and a full slate of musical and dramatic productions.

Passing it on

In raising his eight children, Asenbrenner made sure music was central to their family culture. As a rule, he required that each child play an instrument, whether they were musically inclined or not. They only had the option to quit if they made a varsity sport. For Atkinson, marching band became her passion. Peg became a professional singer; Jean, a professional violinist, and some of the boys continued to play drums into adulthood.

Recalling memories from her childhood, Atkinson says, "From the time we were all really little, accordion playing filled our house, whether it was just a birthday or a family get together."

In Asenbrenner's final days, all of his children reconvened around his bedside to pray, cry, share stories and play Christmas songs. His children will remember him most for his optimistic outlook and enthusiastic approach to life.

"He wasn't just our dad," says Atkinson. "He was everybody's dad. We shared him and that was OK. Hill-Murray wasn't just a job. It was his life."

Asenbrenner was preceded in death by his wife of 52 years, Margaret.

He is survived by children Jim Asenbrenner, Mary Zimmer, Jean Liss, Kathy Aziz, Tom Asenbrenner, Sue Eichgen, Barb Atkinson, Peg Sutherland and their families.

Hill-Murray closed for the day of Asenbrenner's funeral Monday, Jan. 5, with an alumni choir quickly gathered to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in harmony as a prelude at Church of the Assumption.

And, whether they realize it or not, students will be singing with "Mr. Music" as long as there's a Hill-Murray; he wrote the words and music to "Hail the Pioneers to Victory" when the school was formed.

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