SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On first meeting Bob Fletcher you’d be excused for guessing him to be simply an experienced draftsman who also collects railroad memorabilia – but you’re not hearing the soundtrack of his life.
“I have loved classical music since I was a baby and sat on my great-grandmother’s knee listening to live radio broadcasts of the Boston Symphony,” said Fletcher, an engineering technician with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District. He has either sung in or directed The Corps-Aliers, the Sacramento District chorus, for 24 years.
With plans to retire soon, Fletcher can recite from a mental catalog of names, faces and performances that is surely as big as his huge collection of photos and recordings. “I have much love in my heart for all the singers who have participated in our chorus,” said Fletcher.
Born in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1937, Fletcher first performed music in third or fourth grade when his parents encouraged him to join a local drum and bugle corps. “Yankees were progressive parents, even back then,” he said.
After his family moved from New England to the Southeast he became ill and missed nearly a full year of school.
At the urging of a teacher, he transferred to a military school in Tennessee in order to get his education back on track. There, he joined the Air Force Reserve, sang chorus and played percussion in the band.
He went on active duty with the Air Force in 1956 and was assigned to the Eighth Air Force Band, singing with the group all over the Northeast until being reassigned to a civil engineering group.
Fletcher directed a chapel choir while deployed to Vietnam. That war was a hard time for him as it was for many others. A rocket attack on his base killed 17 of his friends and left him with an emotional scar he wouldn’t fully discover until many years later. “That bond between brothers is something you never lose,” he said.
Fletcher returned stateside to Williams Air Force Base, Phoenix, Arizona, and enrolled in several choral music courses at Arizona State University, but growths on his vocal chords forced him to stop singing in the summer of 1978.
After surgery, he was unable to talk or sing for six months. He waited another six months before attempting to sing. “I could barely be heard and had to totally retrain my voice,” he said.
Fletcher retired from the Air Force at Mather Air Force Base, Sacramento, in 1985 and began working for the Sacramento District in 1987.
When Fletcher joined the Sacramento District chorus in 1990, the group was akin to “an organized mob,” smiled Fletcher, with everyone singing the melody line, more or less.
The late Randy Redeen, former Sacramento District deputy chief of design branch, was bravely directing and playing keyboard for the chorus in those days. Fletcher asked Redeen if he might try directing the group’s Christmas performance.
By the following year, Fletcher had the chorus singing individual vocal parts in harmony.
“It was not as good as I wanted,” laughed Fletcher. “But not as bad as I expected.”
At its height, there were 80 voices in the chorus, including singers from other agencies in the district headquarters building. The 2014 ensemble is much smaller, but still accepting new singers, said Fletcher.
Looking through his collection of photos brings back memories of so many songs and so many friends. Fletcher especially remembers the help of three ladies who were assistant leaders through the years: Karen Kuhn, Martha Bennett and Lynne Erickson.
Dawn Palma, a supervisory human resource specialist in Sacramento, is a longtime member of the Corps-Aliers and says the group has always been about having fun and spreading holiday cheer. “I remember us walking through the halls of 1325 J Street (Sacramento District headquarters) singing holiday carols in mid December,” she said.
“Through the years, the best feeling was seeing Bob's face light-up with pure delight and admiration during a performance when we totally nailed a particular section of a song that had been difficult during rehearsals,” said Palma.
The Corps-Aliers have helped welcome new commanders at change of command ceremonies, sung the national anthem at Rivercat baseball games and performed numerous holiday concerts in district headquarters and in the California State Capitol.
In fact, their very first performance in the Capitol was unique in that -- no one had actually requested permission for the group to perform there.
“This was years ago, in the days before tight security and such,” said Fletcher. “We just showed up in the rotunda and started singing.” The director of the facility walked up to Fletcher and asked if the chorus had made arrangements to perform there.
A few minutes and some conversation later, Fletcher and the director were co-conducting the chorus and the Corps-Aliers were invited to come back and perform in the Capitol the following year.
Fletcher deeply appreciates those musicians who have coached and directed him along the way. To balance the scales, he has always offered help to anyone who wanted to sing.
“During my time in Sacramento District, I was able to teach anyone to sing who had the necessary desire,” said Fletcher. “With one exception – a person still working here – but let’s just leave the story there.”