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Ashland alums, greater community, turn out for the benefit of Mr. Otte

Dozens of newly retrained voices took to the stage and performed for an audience of hundreds, but it was all for one individual.

Some 60 Ashland High School graduates took to the stage Saturday afternoon at the Mountain Avenue Theater to honor Russ Otte, their onetime choir director stricken with cancer, and the teacher’s guidance that made lasting impacts into their adult lives.

Lucinda Kay, an AHS alum who emceed the benefit concert, said that from seventh to 12th grade Otte played a major role in her upbringing. In addition to being her music teacher, Kay grew up in Otte’s neighborhood and sometimes babysat for him.

“You had such a beautiful way of holding us accountable,” Kay told the audience.

Kay recounted the memory of being called into Otte’s office after a “little house party” she threw. Learning she let him down was a consequence tougher than being sat down by her parents.

More importantly, Kay said he taught her to use her voice — literally and figuratively. Kay said she rarely raised her hand in class when she was a student, but Otte encouraged her to be bolder. Today she works as a news anchor for KXL in Portland.

“I get to use my voice every day, and I’m so grateful for that,” Kay said.

Some of the hundreds of audience members taught with Otte, others knew Otte from his volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity Rogue Valley — he logged more than 3,000 hours, according to the nonprofit — and others were Otte’s former students.

“This is your village, Russ,” Kay said. “This is the foundation you built that we all stand upon.”

Otte, who retired in 2007 as Ashland High School’s 26-year choir director after a 35-year teaching career, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2016, according to earlier news reports. He declined for any of the proceeds to go towards his medical bills, so instead the performance raised funds for two new scholarships created in his name. As of Saturday evening, the GoFundMe charity page had raised $1,680 of a $10,000 goal.

Others said they got head starts toward careers in music when Otte taught music theory at the high school level — making Ashland High School one of only a couple high schools to offer the college-level class.

Ashland High School Theater teacher Betsy Bishop, who worked with Otte for 12 years and has known him for 31, shared posters of the high school musical productions that Otte helped her with, including “Wizard of Oz,” “Godspell,” “The Sound of Music” and “Guys and Dolls.” In some of the shows he was vocal director, but he easily adapted to other leadership roles as needed.

“He is a total team player,” Bishop said. “He just did it all.”

Gabe Minchow of Spokane, Wash., a 2003 AHS graduate who sang bass in the choir, was among the first to help mobilize his classmates into action on Facebook.

Minchow’s career is in finance and E-commerce, but he described the time he performed in Carnegie Hall is a lasting memory he loves sharing about himself in office icebreakers. Minchow told the audience that Otte “has always been the model of integrity for me,” but Minchow fudged some of the hours on his practice log roughly two decades ago.

“I hope you can accept this as my 20-year late make-up assignment,” Minchow said.

The performers in the choir handpicked their own selections and rehearsed nearly a dozen times in Medford over the month of December. The performance culminated with the entire choir giving Otte an honorary “fist-bump,” followed by tears and hugs when it was all over.

Minchow struggled to find the right words in the heady after-performance moment outside the auditorium.

“It’s exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Minchow said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePhotos of teaching adventures were shown of Russ Otte as guest found seats at a benefit concert at Ashland High School Saturday.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneRuss Otte was welcomed to a standing ovation at a benefit concert at Ashland High School Saturday.