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A helping hand: Ottawa singer forever grateful for help from former teacher

Judy (Olson) Dagraedt is a singer, musician and speaker whose talks are meant to inspire people and help them left better lives.

It was the assistance of an Ottawa High School teacher more than 50 years ago who helped her lead a better life and pass on that inspiration.

“It was a very abusive and dysfunctional household,” Dagraedt, who lives in Ottawa, said of her upbringing.

Despite her troubles at home, she had potential talent as a vocalist. It was recognized by OHS music teacher BJ Muus. As a high school sophomore, Dagraedt began training with Muus, which led her to a music career — and a better life.

Degraedt ultimately recorded 10 Christian albums and remained friends with Muus even after he retired from OHS and returned to his native Minnesota. The 90-year-old keeps in touch with Dagraedt and hosts a weekly radio show.

“I usually call him on Christmas or New Year’s Day. Fifty-seven years later he’s using my music on his show. Kind of full circle,” said the 72-year-old Dagraedt.

“She was a very wonderful student and I was fortunate to teach her and other students. We were like one big family,” Muus said in a phone interview from his Grand Marais (Minn.) home.

A graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfields, Minn., Muus was teaching music at a high school in Chisholm, Minn., and was contacted by MacRae Shannon, OHS’ superintendent, who learned about Muus through St. Olaf.

“They had a good band program but not a choral program, and he wanted to start one,” Muus said of Shannon.

Muus left Chisholm for Ottawa, where he taught music from 1950 through 1978.

He will be honored Sunday, April 29, when he receives an OmniArts Award Lifetime Achievement Award of Excellence, as part of an awards ceremony at Senica’s Oak Ridge Course in La Salle.

Muus said he always tried to help students in need, and found one in Dagraedt, who was struggling.

At age 15, Dagraedt competed in a beauty contest. Muus helped her prepare for the talent portion of the pageant. She was scheduled to sing the song “Last Night.”

“I looked out at all those people and I froze. I sang ‘la’ all the way through. I came back and told him I’d never sing another solo again. He told me to be persistent,” Dagraedt recalled.

“I think he saw I was a troubled teenager — missing school and getting poor grades. He called me into his office and I thought I was going to be thrown out of choir. That’s when he said to me God had given me a gift and I needed to use it. He spent time tutoring me and staying after school — training. It the only training I’ve ever had.”

The next week Dagraedt won the all-state music contest, in solo and duet concert.

“The difference was his encouragement, and he was there to support me,” she said of Muus.

“I tried to help (her). There were other students, too. I was great to have those relationships with them,” Muus said.

Thanks to Muus’ encouragement. Dagraedt began attending school regularly, made the honor roll and sung at her OHS commencement ceremonies.

Her next inspiration came Oct. 19, 1971, when she attended a Stonecroft Ministries program at Hotel Kaskaskia in La Salle. She never forgot the keynote speech.

“That’s where I came to know what I was. Her story really touch me,” Dagraedt said.

Not long after that encounter, Dagraedt herself began working for Stonecroft, representing the nondenominational women’s ministry all across the United States and in Israel.

Her normal Stonecroft program includes her talk “How to Have Peace in the Middle of Turmoil,” followed by a 40-minute concert. She recorded “Turmoil” five years ago at a Senica’s Oak Ridge appearance in La Salle; it’s available now on CD (judysmusic.org).

“People are very worried. They say after they hear me, they find inner peace,” Dagraedt said. “Most homes are full of (turmoil). There’s drug abuse, opioid abuse, alcohol, worries about war. … But I learned how to deal with it and find peace.”

She still offers her love of music on a weekly basis.

For more than 25 years Dagraedt has hosted the radio program “Gentle Moments,” a 20-minute show beginning 8:45 a.m. Sundays on WCMY (1430 AM).

“It’s a real variety of all kinds of music,” she said, and includes country, classical, patriotic and instrumental tunes.

Her television show “Gentle Moments” ran for about 10 years on WWTO, Ottawa. The station had been owned by Trinity Broadcasting Network, so some of her shows were seen around the country, but she had to give up her TV gig.

“It was hard. At the time I was doing concerts in area churches. I couldn’t do it all. I stopped doing (after) 10 years,” Dagraedt said.

Her first Stonecroft shows had Dagraedt playing the organ and both kinds of dulcimers, but these days she plays the Q Chord.

“It’s a digital guitar. I carry it with me because it only weighs five pounds. My keyboard weighs a ton,” she said with a laugh.

Muus also remains on the radio. He hosts “Sounds of the Spirit,” a program beginning 9 p.m. every Sunday on WTIP, 90.7 FM in Grand Marais. It can be streamed on wtip.org.

“It changes from week to week. He’ll have soloists, groups and choirs. It isn’t all sacred music. I’ve heard country and classical music on his show. He’s open to all varieties,” Dagraedt said.

Her own recording career began with her debut album “The Image of Jesus,” recorded in 1975. She recorded nine more and wants to record more, yet has no immediate plans.

“Judy has sent me some of her CDs and I use them (on my show),” Muus said.

Dagraedt has not seen Muus in a long time, yet hopes to get the chance soon. They talked by phone over the holidays.

“He gave me direction. Sometimes a word of encouragement makes a difference. He gave me hope. And I try to do that when I go out on the road and speak to people,” Dagraedt said.

OmniArts gala scheduled for Sunday, April 29

Eight honorees are the focus of the third annual OmniArts Honors Awards Gala Sunday, April 29, at Senica’s Oak Ridge golf club ballroom.

The 2018 Omni Honors Award recipients are:

Lifetime Achievement Award of Excellence: BJ Muus, educator, musician, former Ottawa High School choral director, formerly of Ottawa

Visual Arts Award of Excellence: Dori Thompson, painter, therapist, educator, Mendota

Drama Award of Excellence: Sue Williamson, educator, director, Ottawa; Dave Roden, actor, director, educator, Princeton

Music Award of Excellence: Sue Gillio, musician, educator, Peru

OmniArtist Award of Excellence (multi-talented artist): Bill Myers, educator, storyteller, actor, Ottawa

Dance Award of Excellence: Vicky Benac, teacher, choreographer, La Salle

Golden Arts (Posthumous) Award of Excellence: Ray MaKeever, educator, musician, former band director Ottawa High School

Doors open at 1 p.m. and the ceremony begins at 2. Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased at OmniArts.org. Tickets also will be available at the door. Seating is limited and online purchases are highly recommended.

Each honoree has at least 15 years of continuous artistic professionalism in local communities. Award recipients also must show outstanding character, service, reputation and dedication to growing the arts in Starved Rock Country. Recipients were selected from public nominations, as well as from trustees and The Advisory Committee of OmniArts.

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