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A poplar music engagement

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Robert Humphreys, director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Commission, does not ordinarily give tours of Chapel Hill, but when a tour company called him last month on behalf of the Towson University Chorale from Maryland, he agreed to help out. The choir was touring south and wanted to visit Chapel Hill and UNC on Jan. 11, their day off between singing in Greenville, S.C., and in Durham at Duke University.

Humphreys said he'd take on the Saturday afternoon job of showing the group of 50 students around town for three hours. He had a plan. First, he'd take them to Wilson Library and then over to the Ackland Art Museum. Of course, it wasn't to be quite so simple. After finding out that the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library was closed Saturdays, the Ackland called him Friday afternoon and said no one there was available to lead a tour of the museum.

"So, I entered the tour thinking, why am I doing this? I'm trying to help these people out, but I don't know what I'm going to do with these kids for three hours. I don't know what I was worried about, though," Humphreys jokes. "I know I can talk for three hours about absolutely nothing."

He managed to come up with a last-minute plan B. He greeted the choir as they got off their bus at the Morehead Planetarium parking lot and explained that he would lead them on a campus tour of UNC's numerous performance venues. If they found one that was open, he told them he'd like very much if they'd sing a couple pieces for him. They said they'd love to.

The group spent the majority of their time visiting the well-known concert halls and theaters as well as several of the more obscure UNC performance locations. To Humphrey's dismay, however, every single venue on his makeshift tour had a show or a rehearsal going on at the time. Somewhat deflated, Humphreys led the choir back to their bus after a short self-guided tour of the Ackland.

As they walked under the old trees of McCorkle Place, Humphreys shared some local history and folklore while directing their attention to points of interest. When the crowd approached "The Bench," a weathered stone seat near the Davie Poplar, he continued in a loud voice, "Now I don't want to make the young man on the bench nervous, but it's said that if you propose to your girlfriend on this bench, your marriage will be a long and happy one."

The group turned to the couple seated there as the young woman slowly pointed to a new diamond ring on her left hand, happy tears in her eyes. Thinking fast, Humphreys turned to the puzzled young man and said, "Oh my gosh, have you already given it to her? I'm so sorry we're late." And not missing a beat, Humphreys turned to the choir director and whispered, "Quick, give 'em a song that's appropriate."

Without hesitation, the director gathered the 50-member choir around the bench and led them in an old Quaker hymn, "Returning Home." Their harmonies rang out across the lawn and passers-by stopped to see what was happening. The couple began to cry, as did the choir director and the bus driver.

"I was all choked up. It was an incredible ... an unbelievable scene," recounts Humphreys. As the choir ended the song to applause, he asked them to turn and walk away without a sound and they did just that. He turned to the couple and simply said, "Congratulations and good luck!" before joining the retreating choir. When they were beyond earshot, one of the young women in the choir burst out, "Oh my God, that was so cool!" and the entire group erupted with laughter and cheers.

"It was a very special moment," Humphreys said.

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