For 40 years, generations of students at Portland’s Lyseth Elementary School have looked forward to Mr. Fenlason’s music class.
Fenlason, notoriously known as "Mr. Fen," is retiring at the end of this school year as the only fulltime music teacher that the school has ever had.
I grew up right down the street from Lyseth, so I had Mr. Fen for a teacher from 1988 to 1995. When I think back to all the great memories and experiences that he left me with, the thing that stands out is that many of them didn’t happen in his music classroom.
When I was in first grade, Mr. Fen encouraged me to enter the school talent show, which he was the impetus for, and perform a "magic" show. Several other kids performed things like lip syncing numbers and tap dancing routines. One show was in front of dozens of parents, the other was in front of the entire study body which was around 500 strong at the time.
It was pretty nerve racking stuff for an 8-year-old, and my routine was awful, but Mr. Fen made sure the whole crowd joined in with one of his patented "rounds of applause" — rotating the hands in a circular motion while clapping.
When I was in the second grade, Mr. Fen put on a "Fifties Rock Show" with willing fourth- and fifth-graders. My big sister was in fourth grade at the time, and I remember her leaving early for school for months to practice with the rest of the participants in the music room with Mr. Fen coordinating and directing.
Again two performances were held, but for this one the show for the parents and family was held at the Portland High School auditorium. I remember going to the show in awe of seeing my sister and her friends dancing around on stage under the spotlight in poodle skirts and lip syncing to old classics from people and bands like Elvis, Bob Seger and The Supremes. It looked like so much fun, I wanted a chance to perform on that stage as well.
As fate would have it, I got my chance the following year. Mr. Fen wrote a hilarious, yet educational play for third-graders to perform. After seeing my sister in the musical the year before, I jumped at the chance to get involved with the play.
The cool thing was, about half of my classmates wanted to be a part of it, too. So for months dozens of us would show up an hour early to school to screen, audition and rehearse in preparation for two springtime performances.
The plot of the play was a spin-off from the movie "Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure" that was very popular back in the ’90s. In the movie, high school doofuses Bill and Ted must travel back in time in a phone booth with a man named Rufus to meet historical luminaries in order to pass their history final.
Mr. Fen’s play follows the same basic premise, except that in his version Bill and Ted use the Portland Observatory as their time travel machine.
And their guide? None other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Longfellow takes the pair back in time to the days of early Portland settlers like Richard Tucker, George Cleaves and George Munjoy. He guides them through the stories of Portland’s three catastrophic fires and takes them all the way up to the demolition of Union Station.
My role was that of Captain Sylvanus Davis, Portland’s ill-fated leader at the time of the first fire (which was really more of a raid and pillage operation by the French and Natives) back in 1690.
My experience in the play didn’t just leave me with fond memories of performing with my childhood classmates, it also left me with a profound passion for the incredible history of Portland and the surrounding region. The stories learned and the awareness of my hometown that was gained from participating in the play really helped shape my love and appreciation for this awesome little city.
When I got to fourth grade, Mr. Fen decided to do another music show with fourth and fifth graders, but this time the songs came from the roaring ’20s.
To this day I can still sing along to songs like "Sunny Side of the Street" and "Moonlight Serenade" anytime I hear them on the radio or TV (and I still hear Mr. Fen’s voice saying "use your diaphragm, don’t sing from your throat!").
In fifth grade Mr. Fen decided to start a chorus group. I wanted to participate, but my voice had started to crack every time I tried to form a sentence, so I opted for four square on the playground before school rather than humiliating pubescent moments in the music room.
For all the great productions and concerts that he put on through the years, it wasn’t just the big shows that left an impression. Mr. Fen was a must-see at the annual school fair as he MC’d the cake walk competition like a seasoned radio jockey.
He introduced us to classics like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. He brought in cassettes of pop stars like Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan and Madonna.
He put on costumes and created characters like the evil "Doctor Veiner Schnitzel" and the enchanting "Arabian dancing princess." He hid a recorded tape inside his piano and got us to believe there was a "little blue man" living in it.
He showed us classic films like "Carmen" and "West Side Story." He taught us to play instruments like the xylophone, the recorder and even the steel drums.
He instilled a love of music, film, history and the performing arts in thousands upon thousands of Portland kids and he did it all with his genuine style of humor, excitement and a passion for life and love for his students.
It’s hard to fit 40 years worth of work and life into one little newspaper article, so I just wanted to give a glimpse of my experience with Mr. Fen. There are countless others out there — students, parents, coworkers, neighbors — who have similar stories to tell of the man and the impression that he’s left on their lives.
Before writing this column I found Mr. Fen on Facebook and sent him a message congratulating him on a great career and asking him if he’d read any of my columns.
He responded promptly with, "I do indeed read and love your column! Thanks for all the kind words. We should get together — go out for lunch sometime!"
Of course, I said yes to the lunch offer, and I’m really looking forward to it. With all the lasting lessons that he imparted on me as a kid, it’ll be cool to see what sort of wisdom he has to share with the adult version of me.
Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll remember it.
Thanks for all that you’ve done for Portland, Mr. Fen. Good luck with the next chapter of your life.