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Emotional send-off for Minnesotan who's taught music for 67 years

Between schools and church, 88-year-old Ruth Oliphant has spent decades directing children's choirs.

EDINA, Minn. — Standing ovations generally happen after musical performances – not before.

But the congregation could not wait.

For more than a minute, the applause was boisterous and sustained as 88-year-old Ruth Oliphant pushed her walker to the front of a packed Normandale Lutheran Church.

“Thank you,” Oliphant said quietly.

The woman who started teaching choral music in the 1950s was about to direct her last children’s choir after a run of nearly seven decades.  

“It’s going to be a big adjustment for me,” Oliphant said. “I just love these kids, so it’ll be tough.”

Credit: Chad Nelson/KARE 11
The congregation at Normandale Lutheran Church stands to salute 88-year-old Ruth Oliphant.

Fresh out of Gustavus Adolphus College, Oliphant landed her first job as a music teacher in Willmar in 1956.

By age 25, she’d organized a boys’ choir – its 76 members decked out in red vests and berets – that was featured in the Minneapolis Tribune.

Oliphant and her husband Bob would later move to St. Cloud and, finally, to the Twin Cities, where Oliphant would become an elementary school music teacher in Wayzata. 

But it was the children’s choirs Oliphant directed at Normandale Lutheran during the last 42 years of her music career that earned the standing ovation.

"She's just a magical woman,” Kelly Ingvaldson said.

Credit: Chad Nelson/KARE 11
Then 25-year-old Ruth Oliphant and her Willmar boys’ choir were featured in a 1961 Minneapolis Tribune article.

Kelly and her husband Eric Invaldson met as a kindergartner and first grader in Oliphant’s Cherub Choir.

“We were not dating back then,” Eric said dryly.

“Nor have any interest in each other,” Kelly added with a laugh.

Three decades later, the Invaldsons’ two children also sang for Oliphant.

“Never would I imagine when we got married that our kids could sing in the choir with her,” Kelly Ingvaldson said.

Credit: Chad Nelson/KARE 11
88-year-old Ruth Oliphant has been teaching music for nearly seven decades

During Oliphant’s final rehearsal with her Cherub Choir, she mixed games and music, maintaining the interest and attention of more than a dozen children ranging in age from kindergarten through second grade.

“I think music is something most kids enjoy if you make it fun,” Oliphant said.  

Both of Krin Reid’s children sang for Oliphant.

“Faith is a huge part of what she teaches,” Reid said. “She has directed thousands of children.”

Over the years, in a play on Oliphant's name, many of those children gifted Oliphant stuffed elephants. Hundreds of the soft toys fill the shelves, and every other flat surface, in her church office.

“The children always make my day,” Oliphant said.

Credit: Chad Nelson/KARE 11
88-year-old Ruth Oliphant directs the Cherub Choir at Normandale Lutheran Church

The choir director survived two bouts with cancer, but it's other, more recent, ailments that finally convinced Oliphant it was time to retire.

Normandale’s pastor, Paul Pettersen, devoted his Mother’s Day sermon to Oliphant, who listened from the front pew.  

“You have taught us all, that in our bodies there is the most beautiful instrument ever created — not from human hands — from the very hands of God,” Pettersen said to Oliphant and the congregation.

During the service, Oliphant directed a 230-member choir, including 170 alumni singers who returned for their former director’s send-off — the oldest among them in their 50s.  

Credit: Chad Nelson/KARE 11
Ruth Oliphant directs current and past children’s choir members during her send-off at Normandale Lutheran Church.

Erick Lehet was among the singers who arrived 60 minutes before the service to run through “Beautiful Savior” and “The First Song of Isaiah,” both longtime favorites of Oliphant's choirs. 

An hour may not seem long enough to practice after so many years.

But clearly, Oliphant’s lessons took hold.

“Forty-two years, and I still remember all of it,” Lehet said.  

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