DECATUR – Decatur music is in a minor key this week as the community says “farewell” to Millikin University's Stephen Widenhofer, who died Jan. 1.
The 67-year-old professor of music had served the university as chair of music industry studies and founder of the One Voice vocal jazz ensemble, which was renowned as one of the premier collegiate vocal jazz groups nationwide, winner of five Downbeat Student Music awards.
Widenhofer held bachelor's and master's degrees from Ball State University and a doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado. Known fondly at Millikin as “Doc,” he played piano with the Millikin Faculty Jazz Sextet and played organ and piano at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, where he was a staff musician.
“Doc was the reason I came to Millikin,” said Bekah Ford, a member of One Voice. “I heard about him from a family friend in high school who knew I was interested in a vocal jazz program. From the first moment I talked to him, I knew Millikin was the place I needed to be. (It was) the way he spoke about Millikin and his love for jazz and how much can come from that. I was very lucky to get into One Voice as a sophomore, and all those adventures I've had, I will cherish the rest of my life.”
In addition to founding One Voice, Widenhofer created the annual Vocal Jazz Festival at Millikin in 1989, which is a learning-centered event rather than a competition, and he was also the founder of First Step Records and First Step Publishing at the university, student-operated recording label and publishing company to provide hands-on experience in the music business for students as well as opportunities for alumni and faculty artists.
“I will tell you his musicianship was the reason I came over to St. Paul’s,” said church member Richard Schneider. “The way he played worship services at the traditional service was legendary. And don’t forget how he used to pre-record hymns on the organ and then go down for Communion while everyone wondered who was playing the organ. That was insanely cool.”
Widenhofer also played piano with the contemporary praise band on occasion, and drummer Max Burgstahler remembers his quirky sense of humor.
“He was a man of God, a family man that I looked up to, and a consummate musician. Although I am not the trained musician he was used to working with, I did get many opportunities to 'jam' with him in the praise team at church,” Burgstahler said. “He expertly mixed grace with humor. He was just fun to be around. He was very patient with my amateur status, always making me feel confident with my contribution. One night after we finished a song in rehearsal, he looked over at me and said 'The drums sound real good.' After I thanked him, he said 'No, I said the drums sound good!' Then he gave me that that knowing grin that said 'Got ya!'”
St. Paul's worship minister Heidi Sack credits Widenhofer with setting the bar at St. Paul's high for the rest of the church musicians, calling him a leader, mentor and friend to all of them.
“There are people who shape you and inspire you to work harder, to learn more and to strive to be better at your art, and this was Steve Widenhofer for me,” Sack said. “It was always humbling to work with such a talented musician who took his incredible gifts and used them to glorify God in a way few ever achieve. I would watch and listen to him play in worship and it was a bit of heaven here on earth. For those of us who had the privilege to play or sing with him, we were amazingly blessed. I can only imagine the incredible jam session in heaven. My heart breaks for his dear family and for all who have been so profoundly impacted by his life, his faith, his teaching and his talent. He will be greatly missed and he has left an incredible legacy.”
Senior Pastor Eric Trickey said he remembers Widenhofer was one of the first people to welcome him when he came to the church three years ago.
“Steve was very dear to me,” Trickey said. “Replacing Pastor Wray (Offermann, who retired after 40 years at the church) and everybody looking at you out of the corner of their eye, like 'Who does this guy think he is?', Steve was one of the first people who'd been around a long time to welcome me. He was so welcoming and so kind to me, and cutting jokes with me to put me at ease. I'll never forget this kindness. He and I had a special fondness for each other.”
Former staff member Laura Mueller said she remembered how beautifully Widenhofer would play the organ during the confession time in services, and once Widenhofer's son, Marc, asked him what he was thinking about while he played.
“Steve looked at him and deadpanned, 'I'm thinking about my sins,'” Mueller said. “We all burst out laughing. It was classic Steve, incredible musician, but humble and pointing people to Jesus.”
Millikin President Patrick White calls Widenhofer a “rainmaker,” which he said he uses to describe people who make a lasting difference, but don't call attention to themselves.
“Steve was the kind of leader who quietly and methodically made an enormous difference at Millikin,” White said. “He was always giving credit to his students, his colleagues and others in the university, and he was an immensely kind and generous man, and that's a rare thing among leaders making such a huge difference.”
Widenhofer is survived by his wife, Debra; daughter, Brittany (Michael) Atwood of Monticello; sons, Marc and Jacob (Emily) Widenhofer of Nashville, Tenn.; three grandchildren, William, Joshua and Andrew Atwood; brother, Gerald (Ronelle) Widenhofer of Fort Wayne, Ind., parents-in-law, David and Lorene Bouman of Fort Wayne. Services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, with visitation an hour before services at the church, and visitation 4 to 7 p.m. today at Brintlinger and Earl Funeral Home.