1987 Swan Award Winner: Ben Denton
Ben Denton has arguably, although humbly and quietly, had one of the strongest impacts on high school choral music in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born in Colony, Kansas in 1918, he had a musical family: his mother played piano for silent movies at the local theater, and his older brother was an accomplished violinist in the Phoenix – Mesa AZ area, where they moved when Ben was a young adult.
Ben attended Arizona State Teacher’s College in the late 1930s (the pre-cursor of Arizona State University) and following graduation, later studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Boston, refining his talents as an accomplished baritone. He enlisted in the Army in July of 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II he served in Europe as a mortar captain, returning to Arizona after the war where he met and married Shirley Ellsworth.
Ben was called up by the Army again to serve in Korea in the early 1950s. This time the duty was a little more suited to his talents – he was the liaison for the “Entertainment Corps” that brought big name performers of the day (Danny Kaye was one of the many) to perform for the troops.
After Korea, Ben returned once again to Arizona and began his teaching career. He taught at North Phoenix HS in the 1950s where he developed a highly successful and award-winning choral program. In 1960 he was contacted by an old friend from his Korea days, Anthony “Duke” Campagna. Duke was teaching music in San Mateo, CA, where a new high school was soon to open, and Duke was recommending Ben for the choral position. Aragon opened in 1961, with Ben as its first choir director. In fact, Ben even wrote the Aragon “Alma Mater,” still in use today.
While living in the San Mateo area, Ben also held successful positions directing the Orpheon Male Chorus and had a longterm conducting position with St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Redwood City, CA.
While at Aragon, Ben’s choirs received the highest recognition for their accomplishments. His A Cappella and Madrigal groups performed regularly in the community, at school events, and at ACDA and MENC national and regional festivals and conferences. He became known for the high quality and standards that his groups always exemplified, and developed many of his singers into accomplished soloists, future choral directors, and life-long choral enthusiasts.
Ben retired from teaching in 1980, and always recalled fondly the final piece of his spring concert: Wilhousky’s “ Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Unbeknownst to Ben, arrangements had been made for dozens of his alumnae to attend the concert, and just prior to the downbeat of the piece, these former students joined his current choirs on the stage to sing together a fitting tribute to a man who impacted thousands of people with his high standard of choral art.
Ben and Shirley moved to Grass Valley, CA after his retirement, where Shirley passed away in 1999. Later, Ben moved to Oregon with one of his sons, where he lived until he passed away in January, 2016, at the age of 97.
Ben left more legacies than one could count, but the stories of the depth of his impact are many. From Ben’s youngest son, Bill:
“I will never forget the way he bounced up and down on the podium and smiled at his groups as he worked to get the most out of them. He wanted them to have the same love of music he had and he wanted them to convey that passion through their performance, and at the same time have fun doing it.”