A life devoted to choral music took Frank Pooler around the world. But his heart was always in Onalaska, his birthplace and the place where he learned so many formative lessons in music and life.
Pooler died Saturday morning at his home in Los Alamitos, Calif. He was diagnosed in December with lung cancer, and by last week, it had spread so rapidly that further treatment was not an option, said his wife, Rhonda Sandberg Pooler.
Whether it was translating Norwegian composers’ works into English, producing an award-winning recording in Australia, conducting choral workshops and choir performances or serving as mentor and musical director for The Carpenters, the chart-topping 1970s pop music duo, Pooler’s world was music.
From 1959 on, he called California home, moving there to teach choral music and direct the University Choir at California State University, Long Beach, but Onalaska always had a special place in his heart.
In a final exit that gave sheer poetic expression to Pooler’s love for his hometown, the mortuary staffers respectfully encased his body in a white sheet with a beautiful purple covering.
The purple and white are Onalaska High School’s colors. Pooler’s cremated remains will be laid to rest in Onalaska’s city cemetery in one of the two grave sites Pooler won many years ago in a poker game.
“He always said, ‘Nobody had a better upbringing than I did,’” Sandberg said. “That’s one reason he wanted to be buried back there. ... He said his roots really drive everything he has done.”
Pooler — known to many as “Mick” — was born March 29, 1926, in Onalaska to Frank Eugene and Florence (Mairich) Pooler. He was joined in the family about two years later by a brother, Lawrence, who lives in Appleton.
Pooler’s father, who was pushing 50 years old when “Mick” was born, had led an interesting life and undoubtedly imparted his sense of adventure to his son. The elder Pooler was captain of detectives on the Milwaukee Railroad, an entertainer and gambler during the Gold Rush in Alaska and ran theaters on the West Coast during the motion picture industry’s early days.
“He was a fascinating man, and I loved him,” Pooler said of his father in an email exchange in August.
When Pooler was 6, the girls next door convinced him to come with them to Sunday services at Norwegian Lutheran Church. “That’s where I first got turned on to music,” Pooler said in an interview in 2007, the year the church (now First Lutheran Church) named its choir room in his honor.
A year later, Pooler was in the inaugural class of inductees to Onalaska High School’s Wall of Excellence.
Today, more than 500 choral compositions and arrangements bear Pooler’s name, and his efforts to get Norwegian choral works translated into English were honored by Norway’s King Olaf in 1984 with the St. Olaf Medal. And as choral director at Long Beach, he taught, mentored and nurtured countless students who went on to become musicians and teachers themselves.
He had many gifts beyond music. He was a formidable painter, sculptor and an engaging writer. Sandberg said one of her husband’s biggest gifts was his instinct for recognizing and nurturing artistic talent.
It was that instinct that told Pooler a young, very shy Richard Carpenter, who had come to a choir audition to play piano for someone else, would be a talented singer and should be in his choir. Sandberg said Pooler also pushed Richard to work on his songwriting, which already was showing promise.
Sandberg said Pooler saw the same potential in Richard’s sister, Karen, who was going to major in percussion before Pooler convinced her that her voice was her greatest gift.
“In most choirs they wouldn’t have even noticed her,” Sandberg said.
Once he got Karen in the choir, Pooler pushed her to overcome her shyness.
"Frank was very helpful in our college days, when we were trying to get a contract and constantly missing classes and everything," Karen Carpenter said in a 1978 radio interview. "He was the only one down there who actually understood what we were after, and he stood behind us all the way."
Pooler served as The Carpenters’ musical director and the duo, the biggest-selling group of the 1970s, went on to produce lush pop hits including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Sing” and “Merry Christmas, Darling,” to name just a few. Pooler wrote the Christmas song in 1946, and Carpenter gave it a new tune. After The Carpenters recorded it the song became a holiday standard.
Pooler was well known as a captivating storyteller, and he had a knack for getting into situations that made for good stories.
Former Onalaska High School choral director Paul Gulsvig recalled one story he read in a memoir Pooler was working on that took place in Oslo, Norway, when Pooler was there doing some post-doctoral studies. A friend of Pooler’s, his freshman English teacher at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., had become U.S. ambassador to Norway, and he called Pooler up to ask him a big favor.
His friend told Pooler that an American musician was in town with his wife, and he wanted Pooler to show them the town. His friend said the musician’s name was “Aaron Coplet,” but it turned out to be Aaron Copland, already well on his way to becoming one of America’s most highly regarded composers.
“Frank’s friends were pretty amazing,” said Gulsvig, who counted himself very lucky to be among Pooler’s friends.
“He was absolutely my hero,” Gulsvig said. “I thought he was the greatest thing that ever walked the face of the earth.”
Of course, Pooler was much too “complicated” to be a candidate for sainthood; Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” might be the soundtrack for Pooler’s life. “He was just such a captivating person,” Gulsvig said, “and he had so many different interests.”
Pooler had an extensive collection of political memorabilia going back to the 1940 presidential election, and he had a huge collection of memorabilia and works by H.L. Mencken, a journalist, critic and essayist who famously wrote, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”
“He worshipped at the altar of that man,” said Sandberg, Pooler’s second wife.
Pooler married Sandberg, a former student and an accomplished composer 25 years his junior, in 1980. They lived apart between 1987 and 2003, due in part to what Sandberg described as her own immaturity, but in her accounting they were married for 32 years.
Pooler had two daughters, Jane and Susan, with his first wife, Marie, who directed the Onalaska High School choir while Pooler was doing post-graduate studies at the University of Iowa in the 1950s.
Tom Skogen sang in her choir and said they were very lucky to have her as their choir director, just as Onalaska is lucky to claim Pooler.
“I always looked up to him,” Skogen said. “He’s one of our most famous natives.”
As accomplished and well known as he was, Sandberg said her husband never came across as the stereotype of a serious composer, choral conductor and professor might suggest. He could be demanding and seemingly brutal in his frankness, but he also genuinely loved people and wanted to help them.
“He was so honest. He was an absolutely tender-hearted person, but he couldn’t help being honest,” Sandberg said.
Pooler would always go to the mat for people he believed in, Sandberg said, and he had a long-running habit of befriending people who really needed a friend.
“Whenever there was a lonely person, he would befriend them,” Sandberg said, estimating that Pooler had befriended at least 200 people who had no one. “Nobody ever knew about it.”
Numerous postings on the “Friends of Frank Pooler” Facebook group in the wake of his death are testament to the influence he had on generations of musicians, composers and music educators. The postings paint a picture of a man with the charisma and good looks of a movie star but not the ego, a teacher who expected a lot of his students and inspired them achieve it.
One of Pooler’s former students, Bob Martin, didn’t go on to a career in music. He has a Los Angeles-based company that offers business consulting and training seminars. Pooler, he said, was a huge influence on his life.
“I, and so many others, wanted to please him and be like him. He was a man’s man who was accomplished in many arts,” Martin said by email. “He was enthusiastic about whatever interested him in the moment but wasn’t self-absorbed. He did, and always will, make me act like a better man.”
Plans for a memorial event for Pooler in Onalaska are still in the works.
There will be an afternoon memorial service at Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach on Saturday, Feb. 23. The time is still being worked out.
Sandberg said a special tribute will be held in the fall in the Long Beach university’s performing arts center, which is named for The Carpenters. “We want to do it up right with lots of fun and humor, because that was so him.”