Longtime choral music leader at KU dies

Even during his final days at Pioneer Ridge Health Center, Jim Ralston was always singing, his wife, Susan, said.

Ralston, a professor of choral music at KU for nearly 30 years, was always dedicated to making music with the human voice, Susan said, and that never changed.

Ralston died Wednesday at Pioneer Ridge of complications from pneumonia. He was 81.

“Choral music was his love,” Susan said. “He was so knowledgeable, so diligent about his preparation.”

Jim Ralston directed KU’s choral programs from 1966 to 1994, Susan said.

He was the director behind scores of major choral concerts at KU during that time, former KU music colleague Stan Shumway said, including the annual holiday Vespers.

“That was really his show,” Shumway said.

In addition to his work at KU, Ralston served as song leader for the Lawrence Rotary Club for more than 50 years, and he was the choir director at Trinity Episcopal Church for 35 years. Susan, his wife of 37 years, was also a longtime local musical influence: She was an elementary school music teacher in Lawrence for 32 years.

Shumway said he worked closely with Ralston on many musical performances, many of which took place in old Hoch Auditorium, which burned in 1991 after a lightning strike.

“He was very pleasant to work with,” Shumway said. “At the same time, he was demanding of his musical standards.”

Susan said that one year, as Jim led rehearsals for a production of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” he would come home each night and tell her he felt there was someone watching him. Eventually, he told her, he realized he believed it was Beethoven himself.

Such was his devotion to putting on a worthy performance of the composer’s work, she said.

“He owed it to Beethoven to do the best job that he could,” Susan said.

The final year of his career was the year KU’s Lied Center opened, and he was thrilled to direct performances there, Susan said. It was there that he conducted the final piece of his career: Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” his favorite musical work, Susan said.

Many of his KU students became professional singers, she said, and others became choral music professors themselves.

In addition to his wife, Jim Ralston leaves behind four daughters (including two from a previous marriage), 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Funeral services for Ralston will be at 11 a.m. Nov. 17 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vermont St. Visitation will be 7-8:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home, 601 Indiana St.