LEOMINSTER – 2022 was a banner year for the International Veterans Chorus, which marked both its 20th anniversary and the 99th birthday of its oldest member, World War II Navy veteran Fred Cuddy, with a celebration last month.
Former longtime city resident and Air Force veteran Fran Cooley directs the Leominster Veterans Center-based chorus that was organized by founder Donna Allard in 2002. It started with 10 members, swelled to 45, and now hovers around 25.
To celebrate the IVC’s 20th anniversary they did some “extra special things” last year including having their annual Christmas party held on Dec. 8 catered and celebrated Cuddy’s birthday the same day. Cuddy, the oldest member of the choir who moved to Virginia with his son a couple of years ago, usually comes back to visit around the holidays.
Cuddy is the last surviving original crew member of the USS North Carolina. He turned 18 the day after the invasion of Pearl Harbor in Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941, went aboard the USS North Carolina in March 1942, and mustered out in October 1945.
He asked his son if he could attend the IVC Christmas party and celebrate his birthday with the chorus. Several family members including his son, daughter in law, granddaughter, great grandson and more joined him.
“Of course, we were honored to have him with us,” Cooley said, adding that their next oldest member, Norman “Cookie” Melanson, will be celebrating his 97th birthday next month.
Cooley has lived in Westminster for the last 10 years and performed in many musicals and sung in various choruses during her lifetime. She is one of the original IVC members and took over as director in the fall of 2017 when Allard “passed the baton.”
She said this group is different than any of the other choruses she has led or sung in, including ones in Fitchburg, Darlington, South Carolina, Germany, Oklahoma City, and Vienna, where one of her students sang with the famed Vienna Boys Choir.
“There is a great sense of camaraderie,” she said of the IVC. “So many members do things above and beyond and even after they are no longer able to attend for health reasons, they are still involved. One of our members sends cards to those who are sick, have birthdays, etc., others take care of the uniforms, music, history books. It really is a great group.”
The IVC performs at school and civic events in and around the city and while they “lost nursing homes due to COVID,” they are back to getting invitations from schools.
“COVID took some of those performances away, but we kept on singing, wearing masks at rehearsals, and brought in more solos and duets when needed,” Cooley shared.
Unfortunately, their planned 20th anniversary fall show was cancelled due to scheduling conflicts, but they performed at a Vietnam veterans event in the city earlier last year, the 9/11 ceremony in September, and some repeat gigs.
“We normally sing for the White Cross Ceremony in Leominster the Friday before Memorial Day and are also usually invited to sing at the Veterans Cemetery in Winchendon on Memorial Day,” Cooley said. “I suspect we will add a few additional surprises next year.”
The music director said that some choir members move to auxiliary and then “come back to active when their schedule allows” and that the group is able to adjust on the fly during performances, not an easy thing to do.
“They are very flexible,” Cooley said. “If we need to make a last-minute change for some reason, they just watch me and adjust. This can be difficult, especially for the elderly, but they are quite the group.”
Her husband Tom Cooley and their daughter are also fellow Air Force veterans. Tom does sound for the IVC, which is open to those who served in the military overseas.
“Over the years we have had veterans from the Japanese (Armed) Forces, the British Army, and the Hungarian (Defence) Forces,” Cooley said of the eclectic mix of vets.
They perform seasonally, typically from September through December and then March to June or July depending on their last performance. They always welcome new members and practice on Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Veterans Center on West Street during their active months. More information can be found on the International Veterans Chorus Facebook page.
Cooley said she would like to find another full-time music director to replace her and will be working with the board this year to make that happen.
“I used to be a member of the choir and would like to return to the chorus and sing again,” she said, adding that another member San Tatillo assists in directing as needed and that with back up director Dale Miller, they are “very blessed to have her support.”
She went on to say that they are “so thankful to have guitar support, backup directors, sound support, and photographer support” and that she thoroughly enjoys being part of the chorus and spreading joy and patriotism through their music.
“We sing at churches, nursing homes, ballgames, festivals, etc.,” Cooley said. “We are called to sing for fallen comrades, civic events, singing along with students and teaching them that we can live together in harmony even after wars.”