A History of the Chorus...


The Heart of Illinois Chorus, chartered on January 13, 1982, is an organization of women who like to sing women’s four-part harmony and have fun! We are one of 700 choruses of Sweet Adelines International, a worldwide non-profit organization dedicated to women’s a cappella four-part harmony arranged in the barbershop style. As a member of Midwest Gateway Region 5, the Hearts have been regional champions four times. This made us eligible to compete on the International stage in Salt Lake City, UT (1990), Indianapolis, IN (1993), Phoenix, AZ (2003) and Calgary, Alberta, Canada (2007).

The Hearts have also traveled and performed in Austria and the Buckeye Invitational in Columbus, OH as well as many events in the Peoria—Bloomington area. This year, we have performed at the Heart of Illinois Fair as well as several other festivals in the area, sung the national anthem at a Chiefs’ game, and performed at the Women’s Lifestyle Show. To earn money to support our musical activities, the Hearts have worked at the Tazewell Festival Center every Friday night for 12 years. We sell raffle games, provide other customer-service duties and have been known to break into song occasionally. We even sang at a wedding which was held at the Festival Center.

The founding director of the Heart of Illinois Chorus was Helen Peters, who was a member of the Jr. Misses—an International Championship Quartet. Helen had previously directed the Belles of Harmony chorus in Peoria.

Our second Director, Gena Sommer, has been a member of Sweet Adelines for about 30 years, and has been in quartets most of the time, winning regional and competing at the International level six times. She also previously directed the Springfield chorus. Gena began directing the Hearts in 2004.

Krista Chmiel, our third Director, came to us in 2012. She sang tenor with Society Rhythm, who were Region 5 champs in 1998 and 2000.  From 1998 to 2000, she directed Gateway Sounds in Collinsville, Illinois.  Krista is a choral music educator, and she arranges all kinds of vocal music.  She has a master’s degree in vocal performance at Illinois State University and is a music educator in her commnunity.

Currently, the Heart of Illinois Chorus is directed by Lora Wright, a previous 18-year member of the chorus starting in 1992, who left to help a struggling chorus in our region by directing them. After that she jumped around singing in different choruses, but returned home to direct the Hearts in January of 2017, taking over from Helen Peters, who came back to direct our chorus in the interim.

The Heart of Illinois Chorus has been the Chorus-in-Residence at Illinois Central College for many years, and we perform one major concert annually. Students can also enroll in a 1-hr music class and attend our rehearsals each semester. It is a great way to enhance singing ability and learn the joy of performing!

In addition to planning for our annual show and performances, the Hearts also participate in Regional Competition each spring. This is a good way to work toward our goal of musical excellence and receive feedback about our progress from the Judging Panel. We also learn from watching other choruses and quartets perform in competition.

Currently, the Hearts have about 35 active singing members. We have members of all ages who find the Heart of Illinois Chorus a wonderful extension of their lives and families. Look closely and find the mother & daughters and sets of sisters on the risers. The music brings us together from all walks of life and the harmony of barbershop weaves us together like the chords we sing.



In 1982 The Heart of Illinois Chorus was chartered and thus began our journey to “harmonize the world” with four-part harmony.  From the basement of a small church in Peoria, to the Performing Arts Center at Illinois Central College, the history of  our chorus has been one of hard work, determination, and just plain good fun. 

The Hearts started with only 18 members, but steadily that number has increased over the years.   We currently have ____ We have been lucky to have had only three directors in the 31 years we have been singing together.

(1982 - 2004) Helen Peters was the first director of the Hearts.  She started singing barbershop as a teenager.  Helen is a queen of harmony, having been a member of the international champion quartet, the Junior Misses.  Her stories of singing with this quartet and appearing all over the United States on T.V., radio, private functions, wherever and whenever someone wanted a championship quartet, are very interesting and entertaining, if you can get her to tell them.  She twice directed the Hearts winning first place in regional competition, and she has directed the chorus and placed fifth on the international level.  No one could replace Helen.  She has remained a source of much wisdom and advice, and she is a tireless cheerleader for the chorus. 

(2006 - 2012)  Gena Sommers was our second director to share her many talents with the Hearts. 

            “I directed the Hearts from 2006 to 2012, seven years after having been a member for two years.  The very first year I directed, we won regional competition by one point.  We then went to International in 2007.”  (Note:  Gena co-directed with Helen Peters in 2005 and then took over completely in 2006)

“I have been a member of Sweet Adelines for almost 35 years and a member of three quartets.  The first was with my mom in Friends and Relations.  We scored third at contest our first time out.  Then Crossroads won in 1989 and 1996.  The first time Crossroads competed, we placed in the top 20 and were able to return without going back to regionals.  Neither Crossroads nor my current quartet, Main Attraction, ever scored that high again.  Main Attraction has won regional three times: 2004, 2006, and 2007.   As regional champs, we are eligible to be in the Sterling Sorority.”

We were sad to lose Gena, but we love our new director, Krista Chmiel.

(2012 - 2016) Krista Chmiel grew up as a barbershop brat.  She joined the Vermillion Valley Chorus when she was 14 and sang with her mom in a quartet before entering the competition arena at age 17.  She sang tenor with Society Rhythm, who were Region 5 champs in 1998 and 2000.  From 1998 to 2000, she directed Gateway Sounds in Collinsville, Illinois.   Krista is a choral music educator, and she arranges all kinds of vocal music.  She is currently working on her master’s degree in vocal performance at Illinois State University.   We all wish we had her energy, and we are very excited to sing under her direction.

The Hearts are also lucky to have several able and gifted associate directors as well.  We have JoEllyn Welch, who is our Associate Director, and Assistant Director Vicki Cox.  Both of these talented ladies are members of the Sterling Sorority, having sung in championship quartets.

For over 30 years now, the Heart of Illinois Chorus has been keeping barbershop music alive and well in Central Illinois.  We have represented our region at four international competitions - Salt Lake City (1990), Indianapolis (1993), Phoenix (2003) and Calgary, Alberta, Canada (2007).

Kaye Heimeshoff (Member Emeritus 1982 - 2006) shared her experience of the Salt Lake City International Competition experience:  “I was in the Hearts from the start (1982) and we did go to Salt Lake City with our heads and hearts in the clouds.  We were given fifth place and sang on that big stage.  We were a young chorus then (eight years old) and ready to “lick the world. . .”   

The HOI Chorus also performed at the Buckeye Invitational, at Silver Dollar City, and probably the most exciting event was when the HOI chorus participated in festivals in Kitzbuhel, Hofgarten and Innsbruck in Austria. 

Member Karen Beckler writes fondly of her experiences in Austria at the end of this: “The stories of the Austria trip are now legend, but on the Summer Solstice in 1997, and our last night in Kitsbuhl, Austria, I just couldn’t contain myself any longer and had to sing along. . .”

We have also had great opportunities to sing for many local and regional events.  We have sung at the Old Time Piano Contest down at the Pere Marquette in Peoria, Peoria Chiefs games, the Race for the Cure, and for many other events and charities too numerous to mention here.   One of the most fun performances we did was in Chillicothe, Illinois.  We sang for the Chillicothe Library’s traveling American Roots Music exhibit which was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.  We paid tribute to the Big Four quartet who won the International Quartet Championship in 1953 and were from Chillicothe, Illinois. 

The HOI Chorus is moving into a new region in 2014, and we will be competing against a host of new choruses, along with several that we have competed against in the past.  We are starting another new chapter in the long history of the Hearts that we are looking forward to. 

We love four-part harmony, but we also love and value the friendships we make while singing together.  If only the leaders of our world would stand on the risers every Tuesday night and sing four-part harmony together, this planet would be a happier and safer place to live.  We do our little part to harmonize the world!

Some of our members and former members have added their own stories:

Joellyn Welch, Associate Director

“I joined Sweet Adelines 40 years ago.  I was invited to go to the Canton chorus with a lady that lived near my school.  She had to go early because she had quartet practice, so I went along.  Their quartet tenor didn’t show up, which wasn’t unusual.  I said I thought I could fill in until she arrived.  She didn’t come at all, and I was hired the next week to take her place“.

“After the Canton chorus folded, I went to the Pekin chorus.  I was fortunate to sing for Inez “Jr” Thompson, the leader of the Big Four Quartet from Chillicothe.  I sang there for several years, and then they closed.  Then I went to the Belles of Harmony.  During my time in the Belles, Helen Peters started the Heart of Illinois Chorus.  Great things were happening with this new chorus, and I decided I wanted to be a part of it so I transferred.  That was many years before the Belles stopped singing.  I’ve sung in five different quartets over the years.  If my memory is correct, I’ve only missed singing in two quartet contests.  My best buddy, Gena, and lead in my quartet Main Attraction, have been singing together for 28 years.  It was a thrill to sing for the Hearts for seven years while Gena directed.  The friendships and wonderful music are two of the reasons that I’ve kept singing.”

Kaye Heimeshoff, Member Emeritus 1982 - 2006

“I was in the Hearts from the state (1982), and we did go to Salt Lake City with our heads and hearts in the clouds.  We were given fifth place and sang on that big stage.  We were a young chorus then (eight years old) and ready to “lick the world.”  We couldn’t and did not do it without Helen Peters by our side.  She pulled us up and showed us what the Hearts could do with a lot of hard work.  There were a lot of hugs that went around in the chorus like the song “Sisters-Sisters,” and that’s the way we felt about each other.  The hearts were and still are a big part of my life.  Happy memories can never be taken away.  Go Hearts!”

“And could anyone forget the “smile lady” who use to hold up a smile face to make the audience know that we love to sing?  Yes, dear Mary Johnson was the lady.  She was with us from the start of the chorus.  She didn’t “smile” a whole lot, but we got the idea.  They say if you love to sing, let your face know it.  Lots of happy times and memories from being a Heart.”

Kathy (Feltenstein) Campbell, Charter Member

I was a charter member of the Hearts and was also in Salt Lake City.  When we began, even before being chartered, we met in the basement of Unity Church in Peoria.  I can’t remember specifically how many people we had then, but it was probably 20 or less.  Helen was our director, and there were people who had previously been Belles and other newbies.  I was a newbie.  I know Helen as she was dating one of my boyfriend’s friends.  She knew I liked to sing and so . . . Anyway, we were a fun group!  Unfortunately, many are now gone:  Pat Almasy, Mary Johnson, Wanda Oliver, and several others have now passed.

Salt Lake City:  Helen prepared us to do the whole shot in case we made it to the finals.  I can’t remember all of the sounds, but our second night numbers were themed after Peoria.  When we got fifth place, we could hardly contain ourselves.  You would have thought we won the whole thing!  They had to ask us to settle down so they could announce the other places!

We were much the same when we placed second, for the first time in regional competition.

Donna Ramon

“I have been in chorus for 33 years!!  I was in the Illinois Valley chorus first.  I joined because they were in a float in the 4th of July parade.  I saw a lady I knew, and she told me about a membership night coming to my town.  I went, was hooked, and the rest is history.  That chorus disbanded, and I joined the Hearts.  I visited other choruses, but the feel was right at the Hearts!  Of course, my highlight with them was going to International and winning a 5th place medal.  Only five were given out then.  Now for the last three years, I have been dueling membership with the Melodeers.  Back to back nights I travel to East Peoria and Chicago.  I have finally achieved the frosting on the cake . . . A 1st place International medal with the Melodeers.  I have no idea how long I’ll be able to do both choruses.  It’s a hard (even though I love singing) I’m not getting any younger.  I will always strive to be a team player and sing until I can’t anymore.  My goal after raising five children and working for 38 years is to finally do the things that make me happy, and I am doing that.  I have met the most amazing women in this organization and also share this love with my daughter, who sings with the Grand Rapids Chorus.  Life is good, very, very good.”

Judy Ferrier

“In 1976, Jim and I attended a musical variety show at Braden Auditorium (ISU) to celebrate the country’s bicentennial.  One of the groups who performed was the Bloomington Chorus of Sweet Adelines.  I knew about barbershop music but had never seen a chorus perform.  The chorus was 17 women.  Most were 20 plus years older than I.  They were wearing a lovely 1890’s black suit.  The costume had a floor length skirt, fitted jacket with a hot pink ruffled dickie, and hot pink three cornered hat.  Even from the balcony, I could see that the singers were wearing a lot of make-up.  Then they began to sing, and I forgot everything except the mesmerizing sound of that four part harmony.  After the performance, I told Jim, “I hate the costume and all that make-up, but I HAVE to see if I can sing that type of music.  I wonder if they would take someone my age.  I was 28 at the time.  The next week I showed up at their rehearsal with a friend for support.  Director Liz Hardcastle taught me a tag, pronounced me a baritone (yeah, right, what is that?) and told me to stand in front of Sue Skeels, an experienced singer.  The rest is history.  I transferred to the Heart of Illinois chorus in 1990 because I was looking for a new musical challenge with a larger chorus.”

Carol Finley

“Carol McCoy and I went to high school together.  We sang together in a small group called Rockettes & Rocketeers.  Carol sang Soprano, and I sang Alto.  Carol had joined the Hearts about seven years before I did.  She talked me into joining the Hearts in 1991.”

“I came in as a Baritone for five years.  Then I became a tenor.  The chorus was tenor-shy at the time. There are many more opportunities to quartet as a tenor.  They always need a tenor.  I joined a quartet with Carol McCoy, Diane Young, and JoEllyn Pyle.  We called ourselves Melody Lane.  We competed several times.  Soon the lead dropped out so Jana

Krones replaced Jo Pyle as our lead.  Then an opportunity for a second quartet came along, and I sang tenor again with Diane Young, Margaret Smith, and Mary Pat Grady.  I do not remember the name of that quartet, but we did compete.  Then I sang tenor in a quartet called Total Eclipse with Vicki Cox, Karan Bradley and Carol Colgan.  We competed a year and even won a fourth place medal! I don’t remember when.  Then the chorus needed baritones, so I sang Bari for about another five years.  Now I am going to sing tenor again for awhile.  The chorus is tenor shy again.”

“My mother, Virginia Mangis, has made several of our chorus costumes, the white ones with the gold sequins, the purple ones with the glittered dickey, and some multi-colored dressy blouses for a 12-tet that was very active for a year years.  That was a very fun group.  There were 12 of us.  Imagine!  My favorite costume was the red dress with the asymmetrical ruffly hem.  We all loved it.  My least favorite was the piano keys dress.  I have enjoyed helping with scripts for several fall shows as well.”

Karen Beckler

“I think I probably hold the record for the person the Hearts went for the furthest distance to recruit.  It began when I was living in Springfield and saw the listing for Regional 5 contest in the Sangamon Auditorium newsletter.  Knowing my Mom had been in the Champaign Chorus when I was a toddler, I asked if she’d like me to get tickets to go.  We went, and she joined the Hearts that summer.  I tried to find the Springfield chorus and even went to a show, leaving my name and contact information on the table as they were having a membership drive, but I never got a call.  Then two years later, Mom called me and asked what I was doing the following summer and if I would like to go to Austria with the hearts.  Having lived in Germany for three years while Dad was in the Air Force, of course I wanted to go back!”

“The stories of the Austria trip are now legend, but on the Summer Solstice in 1997, and our last night in Kitsbuhl, Austria, I just couldn’t contain myself any longer and had to sing along.  There were at least 20 of us standing in the circle, Jana Krones to my left and Margaret Smith on my right, as we want “How We Sang Today.”  I posted the tag to the end, and as we cut it off, Jana turned and said, “You’re hired!”  Word got back to Helen that I’d been singing with them that night, and as we walked back from the final concert in Innsbruck, she asked if I’d like to join.  Telling her I’d tried to find the Springfield Chorus several times to no avail, she had JoEllyn, who was on the Regional Management Team, get me the information.  By the time I got back to the states, I had an invitation to visit the Springfield Chorus, a month later I was in a quartet, and the rest is history.”

“But that’s not quite all of the story.  The quartet I joined had been looking for a lead for almost three years.  One evening about a year later, my bass said she’d had a busy day cleaning closets and was going through some old purses.  Guess what she found?  My name and number from that membership drive four years earlier.  It was her own fault she’d waited so long for a lead!”

“So, from being a three-year-old playing in the silver glitter as the Champaign Chorus got ready for their annual show, I became a card-carrying Sweet Adeline myself almost 36 years later and have loved every minute of it.  The ladies from Champaign were happy to see Mom again and cheered just as loud for me at my first quartet contest as they did their own quartets.  Mom’s next-door neighbor growing up is a member of the Riverport Chorus in Wisconsin, too, so I’ll get to see Connie at next year’s contest.  What a small world it has become, and they aren’t kidding when they say that one isn’t a stranger more than a minute in this organization.”

Dee Burks

“Seven years ago, I answered a two-inch square ad in the Bloomington Pantagraph that said something like:  Do you like to sing in the shower?  If so, give us a call.  So, I did, thinking it was in Bloomington, and I love going to that town.  I called the number and spoke to

Deb Walker, who was so sweet and inviting and so I decided to go check it out.”

“When I walked in, I was greeted by Judy, and the masses swooped on me, and I just knew these ladies were wonderful.  When I auditioned, singing “Happy Birthday”, I was nervous but smiled at the entire time.  Once placed on the risers, I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, and I was placed next to Shirley.  From the first night, I was hooked.  Who knew I could sing accapella?  Once I was a member, I found out that they had just won their regional and we were headed to Calgary, Canada to International.” 

“Even though I live so very far away and my common sense tells me I should not make that drive every week or at all, here I go back and forth for as long and as often as I can.” 

Pam Irwin

“About nine years ago, Sweet Adelines initiated a membership drive called Ready, Set, Grow.  As a result, the Heart of Illinois Chorus put an ad in the Journal Star advertising “free singing lessons.”  I saw the ad, which was a fluke because I did not read the paper but just skimmed the highlights, so I have no idea how I happened to notice the ad.  I love to sing and had never had any training but had always wanted to do something like this, so I called the number in the ad.”

“A nice lady talked with me and encouraged me to come to ICC on Tuesday night.  Needless to say, the nice lady was Helen Peters and little did I know how much that first visit would change my life.  I was one of over 50 women who responded to the ad.  There were so many of us that the music leaders taught the nursery rhymes and let us decide what voice part we thought we should sing.  I picked lead because I had no training and did not read music so was more comfortable with the melody.”

“At the end of the night, the members were in the lobby (we were in the theater) to greet us.  I saw a young lady that I recognized even though I hadn’t seen her since she was seven years old.  I went up to her and said, “Hi, Jana.  Do you know who I am?”  She looked at me and said, “Mrs. Irwin?”  Jana, and her sister Lisa before her, was in my first-grade class.  I also recognized her mom, Val, and what a wonderful reunion we had!  I have been a member ever since and have met other friends from another life, as well as made many wonderful new friends.  In fact, it was former HOI members who introduced me to the wonderful man to whom I am now married.” 

Terry Nieukirk

“I was attending a Zig Ziglar convention and an old I.C.C. classmate, Becky Wood, saw me and started telling me about her singing group.  She said, “Come to our show and see what barbershop singing is all about.”  I took my sister and niece along to check out the show.  The setting for the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” began.  The auditorium went black, a pitch pipe was blown, black lights and all the voices in harmony . . . WOW!  I was hooked.  Twenty-two years to be exact.”

Kelly Gregory

“I had just graduated from college and moved back home with Mom/Dad.  I noticed an ad in the Journal Star about six free singing lessons at I.C.C., perfect price for me and would get me out of the house and meeting new people.  Off I went to I.C.C. and walked through the doors, not knowing what I was walking into.  I remember going to the men’s shows growing up with my family every spring, but somehow never realized that there were women who sang barbershop.  There were several of us that came that night, and we all got sorted into sections and taken downstairs where Helen taught us the nursery rhyme song.  Then we went back upstairs and placed in the chorus next to someone from our part, and the whole chorus sang the nursery rhyme song, and I thought I had just died and gone to heaven.  I thought “whatever they want, my first born, blood, whatever, just let me sing with them again, please.”  They haven’t been able to get rid of me since! LOL”

Pat Arehart

“In June 1994, I saw an article in the Journal Star about a six-week vocal lessons entitled “Ready, Set, Grow” with the Sweet Adeline Heart of Illinois Chorus at I.C.C.  All I had ever heard about was the Belles of Harmony so I just thought that they had added Heart of Illinois to their title.”

“Since I had the summer off from my church job and also church choir, I thought this would be fun and I would learn a lot about the Belles.  I attended the first night and was greeted at the front door with some members who said, “Welcome to the Hearts.”  I said, “Isn’t this the Belles Chorus classes,” thinking I had gone to the wrong building.  I was then informed that the classes were sponsored by the Heart of Illinois Chorus and

not the Belles of Harmony.  So, I learned something new already.  After completing the six classes, I was quite enthused and decided to become a Heart.  I will be reaching my 20th year in 2014, and where has the time gone?”

Chris Schneider

“My experiences with the barbershop style of singing started when I was in grade school.  My dad (even though he didn’t sing in the chorus) always made sure that we would go see the men’s chorus perform in the Glen Oak Amptheater.   Then I really fell in love with the barbershop genre when I first saw The Music Man.  But I wasn’t aware of the women’s organization until a friend took me to see a Belles of Harmony concert.”

“Someday, I knew I wanted to be a part of a group like that.  When my son went off to college, it seemed that the time had come to explore the open house with the Belles of Harmony.  Such fun and such a great group of ladies!  I joined and was a member until the group disbanded.”

“Fortunately, the Heart of Illinois group was going strong and welcomed me to the risers.  I am so thankful to be part of such a quality, fun-loving barbershop chorus.  May our chords forever ring!”

Miranda Volk

“I first came to the Hearts in 2000 because of my husband, Jim.   He saw an ad in the Peoria Journal Star saying, “Do you like to sing,” etc.  He encouraged me to go.  The first night, about 10 or 15 people were guests, and the lady next to me fainted.  But I did come back.  I have many, many friends because of the hearts and have wonderful memories.”

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