Saying goodbye to ‘Unc’: Lansing remembers Ken Beachler

Friends recall artistic force at a memorial service at Peoples Church


Lansing knew Ken Beachler for his work with the arts — whether for willing the Wharton Center into existence, helping rescue the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge as a programming executive and on-air host at WKAR-FM or for acting, singing and directing in local theater for more than five decades.

But growing up, his nephews and nieces knew him as “Unc” and had no idea about his prodigious work in the greater Lansing area. 

“When we were younger at my grandparents’ house, we couldn’t understand why is this man painting in the kitchen when his voice is coming over the radio?” recalled his nephew Tony Beachler. 

Beachler went on to tell the more than 100 attendees of Beachler’s memorial service at the Peoples Church in East Lansing on Saturday stories of the man many in Lansing knew as an arts leader. He was also an Army veteran and a Naval Reserve captain.

Kenneth Clark Beachler, who was born in Battle Creek, died June 6 in his East Lansing home of 50 years. He was 87. He was found with a glass of wine near him and classical music playing, said the Rev. Shawnthea Monroe. Beachler attended the church — although he’d go elsewhere if he thought the music was better, she said. Though in ill health, he clung to his independence.

Speakers recalled his sonorous baritone and a laugh that would fill a room. When he spoke with you, friends, neighbors and admirers who gathered at Peoples Church said, he gave you his complete attention.

For his nine nieces and nephews, Tony Beachler said, “Unc” was much like a “man of mystery.” He would come to family gatherings at a cottage north of Greenville, Michigan. But the family never quite knew when he would arrive, or what he would be driving, or wearing, for that matter. He was known for dressing with flair.

Once with his family, though, he was attentive and loving. He listened with rapt attention to the stories of his nieces and nephews, then his grand-nieces and nephews. 

“We got to enjoy his laughter, just the way that he would just kind of be brothers with our dad and occasionally fishing,” Beachler said, referring to Beachler’s only sibling, Fred, who died nine years ago to the day that Beachler died. “He was involved in trying to play kickball or trying to play volleyball, which was quite humorous at times, but he tried it.”

He recalled family trips to visit Beachler in East Lansing in the 1970s, when his uncle organized lectures and travelogues for MSU and then in the ‘80s to the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, when he was its founding executive director.

“There were seven of us kids at the time who would ride in a van come to Lansing in the ‘70s and ‘80s being excited to see travelogues,” he recalled about trips to the Aud. Later, it was ballet and music at Wharton, he added.

He recalled visiting Unc’s home on Hitching Post Road in East Lansing. 

“Over the years, we really started to gain appreciation for art. His house on Hitching Post has become an art gallery. And, at first, we’re like, where’s the TV? But then there was his music collection, and you could talk about that and I’m like, OK, where are all the pop artists? And he is like, no, it’s just classical.”

He and others called Beachler’s knowledge of classical music and the arts “brilliant.”

Beachler was instrumental in working with then-MSU President Clifton Wharton and his wife, Delores, to find the funding to build Wharton. The couple’s son Bruce Wharton read a letter on behalf
of his parents at the service. 

“Ken, who was director of the Auditorium and the lecture concert series, invited me on the walking tour pointing out the auditorium’s overwhelming deficiencies,” Delores Wharton recalled in her letter. “It was an embarrassment, especially since Cliff and I believed that if the university wanted to attract world-class talent that the premier American university and its host city deserved, a world-class culture center was needed.”

She said Beachler was instrumental to the process of developing the Wharton Center. She recalled the working partnership between the two as “perfect” and as “making our own beautiful music.” 

In her letter, she recalled a fundraising concert for the Wharton Center with  Lena Horne and Tony Bennett that nearly fell apart when East Lansing and the Auditorium were flooded. But Beachler was able to muster a team to transform the newly constructed Munn Ice Arena into a makeshift stage. The event went off without a hitch, with Beachler leading the troops. 

“It is Cliff’s name and mine that adorn the side of a great facility on the campus of Michigan State University, but it surely would not have become the literal reality that it is today were it not for the indispensable role that Ken played,” the letter concluded.  

Beachler served as Wharton first director from 1981 until 1992. 

He was also a regular at the Lansing chapter of the Rotary Club, said Chris Holman, a local businessman. Beachler, who served as president, grew tired of singing about Rotary to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and other such songs at their luncheon meetings on Fridays. Instead, he brought in singers and musicians of all genres from local talents to professional performers who were in town to appear at the Wharton Center. Holman said the Lansing Rotary is the only one in the world to do so. 

His encyclopedic knowledge of music led to a short term as the interim executive director of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra when it was floundering during the Great Recession of 2008. When Courtney Millbrook took over the post, she said he was a valuable and supportive mentor. She said there was “no small detail” he would overlook.

For example, she recalled taking a call from Beachler after he had been on hold for a few minutes.

“I got a very frustrated and somewhat annoyed Ken Beachler because the on-hold music was horrible and he had no problem telling me that people should not call a symphony orchestra and hear awful music,” she said. It was replaced with music performed by the LSO, she added.

David Brower, a retired MSU chief financial officer and controller, formed a lifelong friendship with Beachler when they worked together on planning the Wharton Center.

Brower recalled the quotes in Wharton’s lobby. An anonymous one says, “A community with art is a community without soul.” The second is a quote from Pablo Picasso: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Said Brower, “Because of Ken’s lifelong passion and support of the arts of all types, I believe we are blessed with a lot more soul and a lot less dust.”


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