A Futterer Farewell: ATU to Honor Faculty Duo Sunday

Futterers on Stage for Announcement November 2021
Photograph from a November 2021 concert at Witherspoon Auditorium that included an announcement by Dr. Daniel A. Belongia (standing, right) that Ken and Karen Futterer (standing, left) would be honored with a debut composition during their final concert as members of the Arkansas Tech University faculty. Photo courtesy of Christian Amonson.

For Karen and Ken Futterer, it started in a chamber music class at the University of North Texas.

“Somewhere in there, (Ken) said he would be willing to play some duets if I could play in tune,” said Karen.

“And she could,” said Ken. “So, soon after that, I asked her to marry me.”

From there, the Futterers built a life that has included 42 years together on the Arkansas Tech University music faculty, three daughters and countless rehearsals, recitals, concerts and students who became family.

The duo that helped shape the ATU Department of Music for more than four decades will retire at the end of the spring 2022 semester. The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will honor the Futterers with a world debut performance of a composition by James Syler entitled “Seasons” during a concert at Witherspoon Auditorium on Sunday, April 24.

The concert will begin at 2:30 p.m. Admission will be free and open to the public. A live stream of the performance will be available at https://bit.ly/atumusiclive.

The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will be joined in the performance of “Seasons” by soloists Dr. Erin Futterer (horn), Dr. Keely Futterer (soprano) and Carling Futterer (soprano). They are Karen and Ken Futterer’s daughters.

“It’s hard to describe how we felt when we first found out about it,” said Ken when asked about the debut performance. “We were both totally blown away by it. It will allow the girls to perform together, which is huge.”

“It is overwhelming and humbling,” said Karen.

“Seasons” was commissioned by Dr. Daniel A. Belongia, director of bands and professor of music at ATU, and a consortium of former Futterer students — Niall Blasdell of Dover High School, Ralph Brody of Clarksville High School, Tom Chentnik of Mountain Home High School, Dewayne Dove of Russellville High School, Dr. Michael Hancock of the University of Central Arkansas, Rusty Hart of Cabot High School, Clay Hooten of Dardanelle High School and Dr. Albert Nguyen of the University of Memphis — each of whom have gone on to careers as band directors and music educators. The project was also supported by ATU music student organizations Tau Beta Sigma and Sigma Alpha Iota.

“Erin, Keely and Carling are spectacular musicians,” said Belongia. “It struck me when we first started talking about this project, what could be better for Ken and Karen than to be able to sit back and watch their children shine together? We are grateful that it all came together and that we will have this opportunity to celebrate the Futterers and their immeasurable contributions to the musical tradition at Arkansas Tech.”

Ken Futterer was born in Nevada and lived in several communities growing up before his family settled in Palm Springs, Calif. As he completed junior college in California, his oboe teacher encouraged him to enroll at the University of North Texas and helped him obtain a scholarship there.

About 2,600 miles to the east, in Philadelphia, Pa., the future Karen Futterer was studying flute and contemplating her future when it was recommended to her that she should pursue graduate study at…you guessed it…the University of North Texas.

“The odds were zero,” said Ken when asked what the odds of he and Karen finding each other were.

But they did, and upon completing their Master of Music degrees in 1980, the Futterers planned on remaining in the Dallas area to pursue doctoral degrees.

Once again, fate intervened.

“Karen’s flute teacher at the time, George Morey, told us there was a job in Russellville, Ark., that was open and we should go check it out,” said Ken. “We called and met (then head of the ATU Department of Music) Bob Casey. It started as one job. One person was supposed to teach flute and oboe, but we came up and offered ourselves as two-for-one to get a college job. We marketed it that way, and Bob said ‘sure, what a deal.’ So, we both started half time.”

Karen was a full-time ATU faculty member within a couple of years and Ken soon followed. Generations of woodwind players at Arkansas Tech have learned under their tutelage and benefited from the cohesive culture within the ATU Department of Music the Futterers helped build and maintain.

“It’s always been a very congenial group that is very committed to excellence in music,” said Karen when asked about the departmental culture. “It has been a remarkably pleasant and supportive working environment, and it still is today. I’ve never seen the commitment or expertise stronger than it is right now in this department. We are absolutely blessed with the people who are here right now. We have former students who are very dear friends. To this day, we call them our family. We have many extended sons and daughters because they become so special. What a gift.”

“The ethos of this school and of its music department has remained intact,” said Ken. “That is not always the case, even with a number of universities in this state. There’s been something in the water here that supersedes personalities. We just lucked into this job…and it’s been a remarkable place to call home.”

Forty-two years after they arrived together at Arkansas Tech, Karen and Ken Futterer will soon close the doors to their side-by-side offices in Witherspoon Hall rooms 213 and 216 for the final time. After more than four decades as faculty colleagues, they have meaningful reflections on what made their spouse successful.

“I’ve never seen Ken turn away from a student or not go 1,000 percent to help make things happen for a student,” said Karen. “He has complete commitment to everything he does. If he thinks someone needs help, he will do it. There’s never a no in him. He loves his work, and he is an exceptional musician and mentor to his students. He is an inspiration to me.”

“Karen is more than a consummate musician,” said Ken. “She is technically excellent and historically informed. Those are all the things that any good professional teacher and performer at the college level should have. But what really attracted me to her wasn’t playing in tune, although that was step A. Step B…the real thing…was that to be an artist on an instrument is more than the sum of the parts. It’s all those things plus a gift from God that allows you to see the spiritual aspects of the music that you are performing and then to be able to convey that through a machine in your hands and across space to the listeners. She does that remarkably, and she did it from the very first day I met her.”