By Katie Seminara
LAKE MILTON — Seeing “Mamma Mia” on Broadway or doing a musical theater workshop may sound like the best part of the Austintown Fitch Concert Choir’s upcoming trip to New York City, but it’s not.
The choir’s main reason for traveling is to sing and perform for veterans at the East Orange Veterans Hospital.
For 37 years, the choir has traveled throughout much of the East Coast entertaining veterans at military and veterans hospitals, as well as Soldiers’ and Sailors’ homes.
On Sunday, the choir, with about 40 ninth- through 12th-graders, was recognized by the American Legion Post 737 and the Ohio State and National American Legion organizations for continuing the years of work.
In 1972, Capt. Milton Kochert, Navy Reserves retiree, and Rosemarie Kascher started the traveling concert choir while working together at Austintown-Fitch High School.
“During Vietnam there were a lot of forgotten vets that were never recognized,” Milton said.
At the end of the Korean War in 1953, Milton was admitted to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for four months, and he saw firsthand the needs of other patients.
“I felt that [patients] deserved to be honored,” he said, adding that Kascher, then the music coordinator, wanted to do something for people.
“I thought it would be most appropriate ... to go out and give vets a little life and happiness,” Kochert said.
“We would spend our Easter breaks on tour,” Kascher recalled.
For about 15 years, the choir was able to stay on military bases, until the tightening of security, said Kochert.
“We had assignments, we lived on bases, and the kids had a blast,” Kascher added.
Today the choir stays in hotels, but the value and privilege of performing for veterans remains the same.
The students don’t just sing, they perform and interact with the patients, said current director Kay Williams.
While in New York City from Thursday to Saturday, the choir will perform classics such as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but also present a medley from “Grease,” she said.
“I think even if you’re not the most patriotic person, you come out with a greater respect for the veterans,” Williams said.
Junior April Krempasky has traveled with the choir before and said the best part is meeting and performing for the veterans, while forming bonds with fellow students.
“Most kids don’t ever get to do that or realize the number of veterans in hospitals,” she said.
The 17-year-old said the choir gets mixed reactions from the veterans.
“Some sing along if they know the songs, some clap, and some cry,” Krempasky said.
Jim Antell took his turn directing the concert choir between Kascher and Williams and said the reason for keeping the tradition alive was “Because I saw what singing for the veterans did for the students.”
“Many times they almost had me in tears,” Antell added.
Kochert said he believes that the choir is the only one of its kind in the country that has achieved such a level of humanitarianism. The reason the choir has been able to continue the tradition of singing and performing for vets is because of the groups and directors selected, he said.
“This is a proud and disciplined young group of kids who take the time to remember our vets,” Kochert said of the current choir.
Although Tyler Hoffman, 17, isn’t thrilled about wearing a “Grease”-inspired outfit for the performance, he said being part of such a long-running program “means the world” to him.
“I’m part of an organization with a lasting legacy that will endure and give meaning to my high school career,” Hoffman said.