A Friend Remembered: Charles Aschbrenner

Charles Aschbrenner

At an institution where decades-long service often seems typical, Charles Aschbrenner of the music faculty still stood out. At the time of his death in September he’d been teaching at the college for 53 years—and if cancer hadn’t claimed him, he would be teaching still.

His tenure spanned a third of Hope’s history, including the college’s milestone centennial in 1966 and sesquicentennial this past year, and across five presidencies. Its duration surpassed that even of the legendary founder of the Department of Music, John B. Nykerk, who taught at Hope for some 50 years until his death in 1936.

Aschbrenner was a pianist known internationally not only as a performer but for his expertise in Dalcroze Eurhythmics. He joined the faculty in 1963, the same year that Dr. Calvin VanderWerf ’37 became president, and although he retired in 2008 as professor emeritus he continued to teach-part time for the next eight years as an adjunct professor.

He died on Saturday, Sept. 18, at age 79. Appropriately, the memorial service was held in the Concert Hall of the college’s Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts. Hundreds of colleagues, former students and friends attended, many driving across the country to be present.

The sentiments shared online—such as those in the guestbook provided by the Langeland-Sterenberg and Yntema Funeral Home—provide a sense of his impact across generations:

“This wonderful man brought gentleness to piano teaching and all his classes. I was a lucky recipient as a piano performance major at Hope,” wrote Bobbi Vander Ven ’75 Kearns of Holland, Michigan. A student 30 years later, Jess Schmidt ’06, noted, “He was the most incredible teacher from whom I ever had the privilege of learning. The most alive person. Always encouraging, honest, and he definitely made me the best pianist I could be. I can imagine that does not even scratch the surface of who he was. My heart goes out to his loved ones, family and friends.”

Such was his dedication to teaching that he continued to serve in the classroom even as aggressive lung cancer and treatment took their toll, and such was his spirit that even long-time colleagues didn’t know what he was enduring.

“He wasn’t telling very many people—it wasn’t his way to project that,” said Dr. Brad Richmond, professor of music and director of choral activities, who has taught at the college since 1998. “He just loved to teach. What fulfilled him at the end of the day was sitting down and helping someone find their inner pianist, and maybe their inner soul as well.”

Aschbrenner was signed on to teach Dalcroze Eurythmics again this fall, and also remained active as a performer—in late July, for example, he was on campus practicing with his four-piano group.

In his final weeks, he was in a specialized-care facility. Many current and former Hope faculty visited, along with former students and keyboard faculty from around the country. On September 7, after 39 years of companionship, he married his spouse, Chris T. Spencer, who survives him.

Characteristically, ever the thoughtful teacher, he asked that in lieu of flowers, any financial contributions be made to the Charles Aschbrenner Keyboard Scholarship at Hope.

Editor’s Note: The college’s announcement about Charles Aschbrenner’s death, which includes additional biographical information, is available online: hope.edu/aschbrenner.