For 39 years Monticello High School’s choral director, Larry Kanthak, has held up his reputation of expecting only the best from his students.
Next month he will pass on the baton and retire from his teaching career, but not before his family, co-workers and friends add some fanfare to the occasion with an upcoming retirement party and a final concert.
Kanthak grew up in a musically gifted family, and he said his music career began when his mother made him sing in the boys’ choir as a fourth grader.
Kanthak had his sights set on football, but this proved to be an ultimate example of the phrase “mother knows best” ringing true.
In the end, he got to have his cake and eat it, too: he spent the rest of his youth participating in all things musical: band, choirs, musicals – but also in football.
He sang for bishops, archbishops and the Minneapolis Symphony, among others, and he learned to play several instruments, most notably the trombone.
Music was a big part of family life for him as well, with family congregating in their basement, playing marches with various instruments and “just giggling,” Kanthak said.
President Nixon put Kanthak’s musical aspirations on hold from 1968-1969, when he was called to serve in Vietnam. He returned to Minnesota to attend college at St. Cloud State University in 1969, right in the middle of the societal upheaval over the war.
It was a challenging time to be in college as a new veteran, but Kanthak persevered and obtained his bachelor of science in vocal music.
Kanthak began his tenure with the Monticello district in 1974, after working as the choral director for K-12 students in the Royalton school district for one year.
He learned of the open position from Dave Thielman, Monticello’s band director at the time.
Thielman said he knew Kanthak since Monticello was in the same music district as Royalton at that time, and he encouraged Kanthak to apply for the job in Monticello because he said he found him to be an extremely talented individual.
Kanthak felt the move to Monticello was a smart choice because of the district’s music facility and more well-established music program, and he jumped at the opportunity.
In the nearly four decades since then, Kanthak has had his hand in countless musical and performance endeavors: his choir program, of course, but also the pop choir, the marching band’s flag unit, the school’s musical theater program, Veterans Day programs and more.
“Music is the heart of a school system,” Kanthak said. “Physical education and the three R’s are the head and physical part, but the heart is part of the school system and we’ve got to keep that alive.”
One especially fun memory for Kanthak was the school’s 1983 appearance in the Rose Bowl parade.
More than 2,000 schools completed the application process to vie for one of the eight spots in the parade, and the Monticello marching band was chosen for one of those spots.
Thielman was the band director and Kanthak worked as his assistant director along with leading the flag unit.
The school has not been to the Rose Bowl since.
“We worked hard for that,” Kanthak said. “The biggest thing about it that I was proud about is that [Dave Thielman] and I kind of put Monticello on the map nationally,” he said. “For two or three years afterwards we didn’t lose a parade.”
Another highlight for him was the high school’s production of The Wizard of Oz in the mid-1990s, where all three of his children – David, Megan and Heather-took part in the cast.
His wife, Georganne, also had a hand in this musical along with many other ones, working behind the scenes.
Overall, Kanthak said many phenomenal things have happened during his time teaching in Monticello, and some terrible things, such as the deaths of much-loved staff members.
“It has been a lot of ups and downs, but mostly ups,” he said.
When talking to others about Kanthak’s legacy, the words “high standards” come up without fail. Kanthak expected the best from his students, and students said he gave them higher levels of responsibility than most other high school teachers.
“He always gave a lot of responsibility and trusted that you could handle it,” said former student Stacy Thielman, who is Dave Thielman’s daughter and a former student.
“A lot of teachers didn’t do that with kids,” she said. “He was always willing to give you an almost overwhelming amount of responsibility and see what you could do it with. I think it challenged people.”
1981 MHS grad Julie Fish spent her high school years as a choir student, a performer in musicals and a member of the flag unit, all of which involved Kanthak’s leadership.
“I got a good dose of him,” she said with a laugh.
Fish said Kanthak was one of the most influential people of her high school career, and she asked him to be present last year when she was inducted into Monticello High School’s Wall of Fame for her volunteerism and achievements.
Fish joined his community choir as an adult and jokingly said she considered becoming Methodist to sing in their choir as well, where Kanthak has been acting as director since the mid-1970s, when he agreed to fill in “temporarily.”
“He’s just an amazing person,” she said. “He was a really important person in my growing-up life. We have stayed in touch and he is a dear, dear friend.”
1999 MHS graduate Andrea Sloneker Shada received the Arian Award as a senior for her dedication to music throughout high school, and she remembers Kanthak as a teacher who always knew how to motivate her to do her best. At the same time, she said he said he always knew how to joke around and have a good time with his students.
Sloneker Shada recalled one competition where all the students were waiting on the bus afterwards to find out how their performance scored. Kanthak came on the bus and acted very somber when he started talking, but then let it slip that they had been given a superior rating.
“We were all fooled and when we heard the news we all busted out screams and he had a huge grin on his face,” she recalled. “You could tell he was so proud of us.”
“I never doubted that he believed in me, and I always appreciated the respect I felt he had for me as a student and a singer,” Sloneker Shada continued.
MHS teacher Mark Cushman has directed musicals alongside Kanthak for around 25 years, and he said he heard about Kanthak’s demanding expectations from many people when he first took the job.
“What I found out is that he … just had some really high standards and had expectations that I agreed with,” Cushman said. “It’s been just wonderful years working with him doing musicals they way we wanted to do them.” The pair has a longstanding tradition to spend the first week of summer break together at Kanthak’s cabin. It’s meant to be a time to relax and unwind at the end of the school year, but the two could never resist discussing the next year’s musical.
“This man knew his music, and as long as I’ve known him he has always expected the most out of his students, musically,” Cushman said. “He always managed, I think, to get the most out of students no matter what talent pool he had.”
He’s really an artist,” Cushman continued. “He just has an eye for [directing musicals]. And an ear. And a voice.” For Kanthak’s part, he said he bases his expectations of his students on a simple philosophy.
“Find out what you can do that you’ve never done before,” Kanthak said, “and then build on it.”
Kanthak’s daughter, Heather Frie, said she knows her dad doesn’t like having things be all about him, but after 40 years of teaching they can’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate.
In celebration of his career and retirement, a retirement party will be held from 6-11 p.m. Saturday, May 18 at The Station Bar & Grill in Monticello. The Lamont Cranston Blues Band will be playing from 8-11 p.m. The event is a fundraiser, with all proceeds going toward the Monticello Choir Fund.
Tickets will be for sale anytime at The Station Bar & Grill, and also at Hi-Way Liquors at the following times: 9 a.m.-noon Saturday, May 4 and 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11.
Two days later, Kanthak will conduct his final concert on stage at MHS at 8 p.m., May 20. All Monticello High School alumni are invited to participate in the performance, where they will sing “The Song Has Just Begun” under his direction. More information about the retirement party and the alumni choir opportunity can be found at www.larrykanthak.com. “If anyone wants to know the skinny on Larry, they should come to his retirement party and listen to how he’s going to get roasted and grilled and shishkebabed that night,” Cushman said. “He has it coming.”
Although Kanthak’s teaching years are coming to an end, this certainly doesn’t mean the end of music in his life. “Once you get into music, it’s lifetime,” Kanthak said. “I will still work with the church, and I have other things in mind. It’s not enough to say what’s it’s going to be yet, but it will have music involved one way or another.”
Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.