Feast and Fanfare has polka theme for retiring teacher Steve Steager

(story and photo courtesy of Fremont Tribune)

James Farrell, Fremont Tribune

Every year, the Fremont Middle School’s Feast and Fanfare event takes on a different theme.

In the past, the event, which features performances by the middle school choirs, orchestra, jazz band and Tiger Band, has taken on themes like Motown, Renaissance, the ’60s and more. This year’s theme was Oktoberfest.

The choice was significant. It aimed to honor one of Fremont Middle School’s own: Steve Steager, middle school band director and polka enthusiast, who announced that he’d be retiring at the end of this school year.

“I think the whole thing was just kind of a thank you to him and his work for the last 30 years,” said Katie McShane-Schwieger, orchestra teacher at Fremont Middle School.

The annual event brings out the school community for performances by the middle school’s music ensembles. But it also features a meal and an opportunity to dance. With this year’s Oktoberfest theme, guests were treated to brats and sauerkraut, decorations in the cafeteria, polka songs performed by Fremont Middle School and costumes of lederhosen and traditional Czech dresses.

Entrenched within the polka-filled night were various tributes to Steager, himself an accomplished tuba player whose polka prowess landed him in the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame last year.

There was a wall featuring pictures from past Feast and Fanfare events, including pictures of Steager in his various costumes for past themes.

“Feast and Fanfare, especially, he’s been instrumental in getting started — it’s been throughout his entire tenure here,” said Jennifer Grenier, choirs’ director with the middle school. “Steve’s wife Debbie is masterful at creating costumes. It’s kind of a friendly rivalry among the music staff: who can outdo Steve’s costume every year.”

Students presented Steager with a card and former students were asked to stand in the crowd. Steager’s daughter, Michaela, a previous winner of the title of Miss Czech-Slovak of the United States, sang a song and then joined her father in a polka dance.

This year’s event also featured music from the Happy Players, a polka band consisting of Fremont High School students who first started playing together while in Steager’s class.

“It was pretty special,” Steager said of the event. “I kind of had the idea when they were students to try and do it when they were students here at the middle school, but we waited until now.”

He noted that it wasn’t uncommon for Feast and Fanfare to feature a polka or two, even if the theme was something different.

“I think kids need to know how to dance to that music because it’s kind of a lost art,” he said.

But Steager said when he found out that the music department was planning on doing something to commemorate his career, he suggested Oktoberfest.

Steager says he planned on retiring after hitting “the rule of 85” — he hit 55 and worked at least 30 years. Now, he plans on selling real estate with Don Peterson & Associates.

“It’s an exciting time because it’ll be a new chapter in my life, but bittersweet because of all the great kids we’ve had over the years and the really good music program that Fremont Middle School has and Fremont Public Schools in general. It’ll be kind of sad to not be a part of that anymore, but I know it’s in good hands,” he said.

“It seems like the right time to retire because I still enjoy it and I don’t want to keep teaching longer than I enjoy what I’m doing. So it’s a good time to go out while I’m still happy with it.

For his colleagues, it will be hard to fill Steager’s shoes.

“We have a strong department and every time someone moves on to go take a job in a different district or retire, there’s a hole there, there’s a void, and Steve has created a really phenomenal strong program over the years,” Grenier said. “My children are products of Steve Steager bands and I know that my daughter, partly, is a music teacher not just because her mom is a music teacher, but because of teachers like Steve Steager who made a difference in her life.”

Fremont Middle School Principal LaVonna Emanuel noted that Steager is one of “three very big retirements” this year featuring faculty members that the school building will have a hard time replacing.

The other two are Quenna Koch, eighth-grade guidance counselor, and Edie Ronhovde, math teacher.

“We would never want it any other way — they qualified for this retirement by putting in a lot of time, energy and service to the district,” Emanuel said. “While I wish all of them well, selfishly I wish we could keep them because we hate to see that talent walking out the doors.”

As for Steager, Emanuel said that his unique blend of musical expertise and teaching abilities made him a “perfect fit” to lead the Middle School band.

“Steve just always has a smile on his face. He’s just got a kind heart. He’s blessed with talent,” she said. “I don’t know how you replace Steve — we’re trying to figure that piece out.”