Helen Demong has opened a lot of doors in her life. Coming from SUNY Potsdam's prestigious Crane School of Music in 1976, Helen has brought music to the lives of thousands of Saranac Lake Central School's students and families.
She has served as a music educator, choral director for the SLHS Concert Choir and Vocal Ensembles, and director of numerous SLHS Musical Theatre productions. Choral performances she directed at SLHS have brought high caliber music to North Country audiences who learned to hunger for the Christmas and spring concert, or the annual musicals.
She has inspired many who knew nothing about music before she opened these doors in their lives. She also is the voice of ADK Jazz, a black tie, five-piece jazz ensemble, singing vocals to the group's jazz standards from the Great American Songbook. Her love of music is inherent to who she is.
ADK Jazz members, from left to right: Steve Collier, Wayne Davison, Helen Demong, Brendan Coyle and Jeff Santoro are ready to perform.
(Photo — Jan Vize)
Born in Seoul, South Korea to an Army father and a Korean mother, her family eventually settled in Rome, New York. Adept at playing piano since childhood, the shy girl spent hours reading biographies, and playing her piano, losing herself in music whenever she could. As a high school student she was a member of the Rome Young Arts Association. Helen took the enthusiasm generated there with her, years later as a music educator in Saranac Lake, building the Saranac Lake Young Arts Association with George Cook, Marie Cogar and David Johnson.
She raised her children, Bill and Katy, in a well-loved old house in Vermontville on the winding back road up Whiteface Mountain. She has become a true pioneer, bringing culture and views of the larger world to those who live here in the Adirondacks with her.
Some know Helen as the mom of Bill Demong, charismatic Olympic gold and silver medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Her daughter Katy was also a well -respected athlete, one of the top five young women on the U.S. Junior Biathlon team when she was 17 years old. Her teammates were fellow Adirondackers Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey, who went on to compete in the Olympics with her brother years later.
"As kids, Bill and Katy were both strong cross country skiers," she said. "Bill went in the direction of nordic combined, and Katy went in the direction of biathlon."
In 1999, the Demong kids both competed in the Junior World Championships overseas. Bill competed in nordic combined in the Czech Republic. Five miles away, as the crow flies, over the Tatra Mountains in Poland, daughter Katy and friend Tim Burke were competing in biathlon. The parents' exciting first trip to Europe was full of pride. Helen's children opened new doors to international travel and competition for this musical director from the Adirondacks.
After graduating, Katy chose to follow the athlete's path, and postponed her freshman year at St. Lawrence University in order to see if more global athletic competition had a place in her future. She trained hard, but got sick, and was advised by her physicians to stop training in order to get well. She made a tough decision to go back to school, and let her biathlon training go.
Katy graduated from St. Lawrence University with a degree in English, majoring in writing.
Following a year working for AmeriCorps, Katy was the editor of a small Vermont newspaper called The South County Sentinel, exhausting but rewarding work. Helen's daughter has earned her stripes as a writer, at work on a collection of short stories, and receiving her masters in creative writing from Goddard College in January.
Bringing music to Saranac Lake
Year after year, Helen added her energy and perspective to the music programs in Saranac Lake. She says, "I believe I am a teacher of students and my vehicle is music.
"There is a full circle of communication in which a music director interprets the composer's intentions, shares these concepts with the student performers, who in turn communicate this music with passion. That connection was so strong, so powerful, that students who were involved felt it, and bought into it. And once you've bought into it, like beautiful art and great books, you feel that you are experiencing another dimension. I'm amazed to watch the students stand tall and sing their hearts out. It moves everyone. The joy and pride I feel are indescribable."
Helen has collaborated with members of the Chamber Orchestra of Northern N.Y. (CONNY) to perform great works of classical music like Vivaldi's 'Gloria', Mozart's 'Requiem' and Faure's 'Requiem', with the SLHS Concert Choir, classical choral music blended with our mountain culture. "We pulled out all the stops during the 1999-2000 school year. In Dec. 1999 the SLHS Concert Choir did Benjamin Britain's, 'Ceremony of Carols,' with a professional harpist from Albany. It is one of the most amazing pieces of music. In March 2000, we staged "West Side Story," one of the best musicals we ever put on in Saranac Lake. In April the band director, Wayne Davison, and I brought members of the band and chorus to perform at the Capitol in Washington D.C. In May we performed Bach's Magnificat,' with CONNY. This was all happening the year we were premiering our new auditorium to the community."
Helen interprets performance pieces for the audience, sharing the history and highlights of the piece. She has opened the door to musical history to dozens of groups of singers and their many audiences over her tenure at Saranac Lake Central School. In June 2011 she was one of only 50 music teachers from across the country selected to receive the Yale University School of Music's Distinguished Music Educator Award.
Navigating life lessons
Once Bill and Katy had moved on, events in her life posed some challenges that opened new doors to her future. Her marriage ended, and two years later, in June 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It really kicked me in the pants. I had surgery, and went through chemotherapy. I think one of the hardest things I went through was losing my hair. Then I underwent radiation for six weeks. At first that was going to be a challenge, because I had to go to Plattsburgh. As a single person I knew I had to keep working through all of this. And I had so many friends ask if there was anything they could do to help. My good friend Kathy Hogan set up a calendar, called Rides for Helen. In three days she called me and said, 'You're all set. Thirty people had signed up. Every single day they are going to pick you up and drive you to Plattsburgh and bring you home.'
"I found it so overwhelming that people would give up their time to do that. It was such a gift. In our everyday lives we're lucky if we have ten minutes to talk to a friend. And through this period of time, I had an hour ride to Plattsburgh, then treatment, and an hour ride back. And just as I'd be saying, 'Thank you very much,' the person who was giving me the ride was thanking me ... people truly wanted to help. It's a testament to the bonds we form here in Saranac Lake, the unbelievable sense of community here.
"I had been through the fire, and I decided that cancer wasn't going to touch my spirit." She only missed two days of work during that time. "Going to work kept me in the normal world. A person with cancer often finds themselves isolated, and feeling that the ordinary world without cancer is not accessible to them. You feel like you're in a shadowland. My students and friends were so good to me, so supportive, it was truly a blessing."
Forging a future
And life goes on. When asked how she met her husband Joe McPhillips, she said, "In 2008 Joe and I met through eHarmony. Joe was curious about the profile photograph of me playing a guitar in front of a house. One of the first questions he emailed me was, 'Do you really play the guitar?' And that started the questions back and forth through email. He'd gotten my interest because he said he'd been a single parent, raising two boys, and that was a priority in his life. That was all very intriguing to me. We exchanged phone calls, then decided to meet in person in Lake Placid. Joe suggested we both bring pictures of our kids ... a true open door to conversation. We walked around Mirror Lake, and went to a concert that evening at BluSeed. There's really something about live music, how it brings people togetherand we knew something special had begun."
Joe and Helen married in July 2010 at Helen's home on Osgood Pond in Paul Smiths.
These days Helen is opening another door, this time to her post-SLHS choral director years. She has a remarkable son, daughter in law and grandson in Park City, Utah, who she wants to be free to spend time with. She has a new husband who lives in South Glens Falls she wants to spend time with. And she has her delightful daughter across the lake in Burlington, Vt.
She knows better than most the value of spending time with family. She is still performing with ADK Jazz, and says, "One of the things I would like to do next is contact Paul Smith's College and North Country Community College and propose starting a chorus for college students and adults from our community."
What new doors may open if she succeeds at that plan? The shy girl from Seoul, Korea, and Rome, N.Y. has certainly had her share of opening doors for her Adirondack community. There is no doubt that whatever she does, it will bring musical magic to us all.