2019 Northeast District ACE Award

Michael & Billie, Ely

Presented by Richard Robbins, NE District Chair

It is my privilege to present this year’s ACE award for the northeast district to Mike and Billie Rouse, nominated by Mary Whitlock. I’ll mention that they are joined tonight by Mike’s mother, here from Indiana.

Of course, you’ve all seen Mike this week, taking photographs for us. Mike is the director of choirs and general music for the Ely Public Schools. Billie, his wife, wears many hats, working with Mike to create opportunities for student success. They also facilitate the Boundary Waters Choral Festival, an event open to students in the small choirs of their region, most of whom have never sung with more than 20 singers, assisted by numerous guest faculty; this year’s guest artist, Grammy-winning songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, said about their work,  “I encountered young people who…had experienced something resilient and true, life giving and connecting, and [who] saw first hand what can happen when we work and sing as strong individuals and together as one.”

But Mike and Billie’s personal journey is just as inspiring. In 1972, during his junior year of high school, Mike was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and given about five years to live. He had the first of his surgeries, after which he had to give up singing. Still, he continued to defy the odds, majoring in piano in college, marrying his high school sweetheart Billie, both of them embarking on successful careers, Mike as a piano technician, and Billie as a florist.

Since then, Mike has seen many “five year” predictions come and go; he inspires many as he continues to battle cancer, with regular visits to Mayo (or as he calls it, the spa), punctuating his work. We are fortunate that Mike and Billie loved vacationing in Ely, and decided to leave their successful careers in Indiana and move to the Northland, with Mike finally being convinced to take a job teaching choir.

They don’t stop — Billie mentioned to me a time recently that Mike had tumors removed on a Thursday, and was back to work on Monday because the students had a concert coming up. He had to be there.

Alexis Leitgeb, superintendent of the Ely Schools, told me that hiring Mike Rouse was the best decision she ever made – in her words, “Mike and Billie never ask for anything for themselves. They give everything they have to children and music.” What a gift.

I’ll end with a short story Mike shared about coming to teach at Ely. “Although I had directed adult choirs [he said], I had never really thought about directing school choirs because I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to model mouth shape effectively for the students … but the principal was persistent … so I sent my transcript and a few weeks later, I received my Minnesota State Teaching License in the mail, ironically, the very same week that I received my AARP card. Well, as it turns out, my students have been able to progréss despite the limited motion in my face…. I now tell my students that, when I was around their age, I lost my voice to cancer … but through them, I have regained my voice … they are my voice! I have been so lucky to have lived this long, and had music (as well as Billie) as a constant companion. I can’t imagine my life in any other way … I am so blessed.”

Mike and Billie, we are blessed to acknowledge your inspiration and your contribution to music in Minnesota through this year’s ACE award.