Lifting music into the skies

Joe Galema '76


Fall 2010

Towering 150 feet into the air, with 17 spires, the aluminum, glass and steel edifice that is the Cadet Chapel on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., features majestic views of the Rocky Mountains.

Equally striking is the classical pipe organ in the back of the Protestant Chapel, on the top level of the chapel. There are two levels of pipework on each side of the organ, seemingly floating in air. Reaching high into the uppermost part of the 99-foot-high chapel ceiling, the organ has called the Air Force community to worship since 1963.

At the organ bench for 28 years now as academy organist, Joe Galema ’76 plays at hundreds of services, concerts, memorials, weddings and other events each year. In addition, Galema is the music director and conducts the Cadet Chorale and the Academy Singers.

“I never would have planned this,” he said. “I was going to teach after graduate school and in the process applied to a number of institutions, including the Air Force Academy. As it turned out, the academy called first and needed an answer. I decided right there on the phone. It’s amazing to see God’s hand working in one phone call.”

Galema looks back fondly on his Calvin musical training.

“I studied organ with John Hamersma, of course, and conducting with Howard Slenk. I remember being the very first accompanist for the brand-new Campus Choir under Merle Mustert,” he said.

After Calvin, Galema went to the University of Michigan, where he earned his doctoral degree, and then—after that life-changing phone call—directly to the Air Force Academy.

“The academy is an interesting setting at which to play and conduct music,” he said. “I’m usually at the chapel to practice every morning, early. Then there are classes to teach, the music groups to conduct and a variety of services to plan.”

He remembers most vividly the memorial service he helped plan after the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. There were 1,700 people packed into a chapel that has a maximum seating of 1,200 to mourn the seven crew members.

Galema is very impressed with the approximately 4,000 young men and women who serve as cadets at the academy, and is doubly impressed with the commitment of his singers, who come to practice faithfully despite demanding training and classroom schedules.

“The cadets in my ensembles come from some very good choirs across the country. They simply want to keep singing, and I think the musical experience helps them keep a balance to their lives,” he said.

Galema works with a team of chaplains on the variety of worship services offered at the chapel. In addition to the Protestant chapel on the top floor of the facility, there are also separate worship spaces for Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist services each week, along with additional space for other faiths and religious traditions.

Since he has been at the academy for almost three decades, Galema’s role with the chaplains has changed dramatically.

“Now I have all of the history of worship experience at the academy,” he said. “These days, I’m the mentor to all of the military chaplains as they rotate in and out. They’re looking to me for some structure to the overall program.”

In addition to his duties at the academy, Galema teaches organ at the University of Denver and he calls this arrangement “the best of both worlds,” being a part of both the academy and university communities.

Galema still thinks about “that one phone call” from time to time. “I’ve found a calling here and that’s clearly God’s blessing in my life,” he said.