It was about a month or so before Election Day when Lee University President received an unusual telephone call — a call that would thrust the small Christian university in southeastern Tennessee onto the national stage.
On the other end of the receiver was U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the vice chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. And the senator had a request.
“He got right to the point,” Conn told Fox News. “He said it was his prerogative to invite a choir to sing at the inauguration.”
And that’s when Alexander invited Lee University to become a part of American history.
“He said, ‘You might need 24 hours to think this over before you answer me,’” Conn said, recalling the conversation. “And I said, ‘Senator, I don’t need 24 hours. The answer is yes – of course we’ll provide a choir.’”
Alexander told the Christian university president to keep the request a secret – until it was announced to the campus during a chapel service.
“We do not yet know who will be inaugurated president in January,” the state’s senior U.S. senator told several thousand students. “But we do know who will be singing that day: the Lee University Choir.”
And sure enough – the Inauguration Day soundtrack will include performances from Beyonce, James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and the 200-voice Lee University Festival Choir.
The news reverberated across southeast Tennessee – and it’s become the talk of the campus. A special website was even created to follow the choir’s adventure.
“They’re going to get to be a part of history,” Conn said. “This is really exciting for Lee University.
More than 4,000 students attend the university — located in Cleveland, Tenn. It is affiliated with the Church of God and faith flavors everything. Billy Graham Avenue runs through the heart of the campus.
“Our core values are Christ-centered excellence,” Conn said. “By that we mean doing all things well and the motivating reason for everything we do is our commitment to Jesus Christ. We’re upfront about that. We don’t try to camouflage that at all. That is our personality.”
“We wanted to choose themes that would speak to a broad audience – both inspirational and patriotic,” Green told Fox News. “The selection of music was an exciting experience but a little challenging as well. We represent a lot of things as we sing. First of all we represent the excellence that we put forth in the school of music — but we also represent who we are and who America is.”
Just don’t expect the young singers to break out the Katy Perry song book.
“We thought about a few Queens tunes, but not this time,” Green said laughing.
One song they will perform has strong regional ties — the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. The university is just a few miles north of Chattanooga off Interstate 75.
“It allows us to take some of the color and flavor of who we are here in east Tennessee to Washington, D.C. and say we’re proud of where we’re from,” said accompanist MaryBeth Wickes.
“We tried to change the name to Cleveland Choo-Choo, but it just didn’t work,” Conn said.
The students, from nearly every state in the nation, will perform some decidedly Christian works including a song that proclaims, “I can tell the nations, yes, that I’m blessed. Tell them what my Lord has done. He brought joy, joy to my soul.”
Another tune declares, “This is my song, Oh God of the nations.”
“For us, Christ-centered means everything that we do is guided by that principal – as Christ would want us to be excellent in everything that we do.”
And while the student were rehearsing, the university was working out the logistics of transporting nearly 300 people to Washington, D.C. for the big day — not to mention lodging and meals. They opted for a caravan of buses – and at least one dinner stop at a Chick-fil-A.
They also outfitted all the students with matching pea-coats, gloves and scarves — braving the legendary Inauguration Day cold in style.
“I’m a good Southern boy so I understand what it is not to be accustomed to the cold,” Green said. “The senator warned the students.”
And they’ve even held some of their practices outside on metal risers during some cold Tennessee nights just to condition the singers.
The university president had a more practical solution to the cold — long johns.
“I told the kids before Christmas – get long johns for Christmas gifts,” he said. “That’s not a very exotic Christmas gift – but we knew it was going to be cold.”
Families won’t be the only ones beaming with pride as the young people from Lee perform.
“The university is the crown jewel in our crown,” said Tom Rowland, the mayor of Cleveland, Tenn. “If you can’t find anything to enjoy musically or culturally, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s all here.”
Watch the choir perform Chattanooga Choo-Choo: