Concert Celebrates Denise Guren’s Legacy

By Curt McAllister

Horizon Reporter

Snippets of melodies echoed down the halls of Syre Student Center on the afternoon of 10 April. The woodwinds on stage and the drummers down the hall punctuated the silent, mostly empty building. Black and silver oboes and clarinets rested on the concrete banisters in the auditorium.

Millie and the Mentshn, the evening’s second act, were conducting a soundcheck. Their band director, Millie Johnson, gestured to the violinist to indicate the placement of monitors, amps and microphones. Johnson called for silence. The Denise Guren memorial concert was only an hour away. 

Guren worked in Whatcom Community College’s library for over 20 years and specialized in interlibrary loans. She founded the Klezmer bands What the Chelm and The Fourth Corner International Folkdance Band. She enjoyed Klezmer music as a violinist and a dancer.

She biked to work every day. Not even snow stopped her from mounting her homemade saddlebags to her bike, donning her colorful bicycling gear and pedaling to work. Guren encouraged college staff to participate in Bike to Work day and pick up the violin.

She died last May of cancer at the age of 56.

The concert and other Whatcom Community College Foundation events will help fund the construction of a bicycle shelter in Guren’s memory.

Rena Zeigler, vocalist for What the Chelm and “mastermind” of the event, said Guren had envisioned a covered bike rack for some time. Zeigler organized the concert to remember Guren’s love of Klezmer music and raise money for the bicycle shelter.

The shelter will be built near the upright rock sculpture, “Signature Rock,” between Kulshan and Cascade Halls. The college is considering a number of prefabricated kits to house 15-20 bicycles.

The design will have three walls and a roof. This limits bicycle access but offers better protection from wind. The kits are similar to covered bike shelters at the University of Washington and Western Washington University.

The memorial concert raised $1,700 through donations. The entire Denise Guren Memorial Fund has raised $7600 towards a goal of $8,000 to $12,000.

The college may contribute funding to the foundation’s efforts, but Brian Keeley, Whatcom’s director of facilities, said, “Fifteen thousand dollars is pretty much the limit.” The budget includes the cost of the kit, labor, and new concrete.

Anne Bowen, executive director of the Whatcom Community College Foundation, said the project is planned to begin late this summer. “I’m certain that it will happen,” she added.

Backstage at the concert, Rich Thomas of the Balkan Cabaret Band arrived with his upright bass and his memories of Guren. Thomas knew Guren as a friend and a local musician for 15 years. He said she fostered an interest in ecology, hiking, and the outdoors.

Throughout the night each song filled the auditorium floor with dancers. A woman in a pink shirt and long white and gray hair led a chain of dancers, arms linked together, out into the crowd.

During the last set of the night every musician crowded the stage. They exchanged words and played passages from the concert.

Zeigler and Johnson took the stage and called the group to attention. They began a three song set full of dueling and harmonized singing. Johnson led the tuba player and one of the woodwinds on a march through the dancers and into the audience.

Zeigler prepared the audience for the finale, “You need to know one Yiddish word to participate…Oy!”

Traditional songs and light spilled into the courtyard from Syre Student Center. The cold wind rattled the center’s double doors. A couple stole kisses in a darkened smoking shelter.

Rena Zeigler held her lyric sheets close to her chest. She turned away for a moment and said, “I’m really glad that we could make this happen.”

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