In the fall of 1980, Lake Highlands High School’s musical group Espree was just being formed. Then choral director Stan McGill had come over from South Garland High School, where a similar group called the Showboaters had been a long-standing tradition. He hoped to bring that to Lake Highlands.
So, with no equipment, no formal audition process, and no name, McGill assembled a group of choir members from a list of names left by the previous director. The kids gave the new ensemble its name – a take on the French word esprit, meaning “spirit of the group” – and from there, Espree evolved into what it is today – a tradition and legacy among the Lake Highlands community.
“We put a lot of hard work in. It took a lot of practice to get it off the ground,” says Alan Kirkpatrick, a member of the original Espree troupe. “We had a pop group before, but it wasn’t as big of a deal.”
At their first big show, Kirkpatrick and the rest of Espree did a country set, a disco set and a gospel set. It was the first time any of them had performed an entire concert as a group.
“I remember the adrenaline afterwards – we thought: ‘Hey, we started this great thing,’” recalls Kirkpatrick.
Since his days in Espree, Kirkpatrick has returned to watch several shows throughout the years. He still sings, mostly at his church, North Highlands Bible, where many members of the youth group also are involved with Espree. He says that being able to share that with them gives him a sense of pride – and some bragging rights.
“I can say: ‘Yeah, I was an original member.’ It’s a neat honor to have.”
In the last 25 years, Espree has performed for local, church, civic and social functions, including two performances for an audience of more than 4,000 at the Texas Association of School Boards annual convention. Each year, the group takes a ski trip and performs at the base of the mountain, and every spring, the group puts on its yearly concert, showcasing the talents of its 12 singers and 6 instrumentalists. Nowadays the group of juniors and seniors is selected from a panel of judges, and all of the vocalists also are members of the A Cappella Choir.
Espree’s repertoire includes Broadway tunes, country favorites, classic hits, holiday songs and current popular music. Solos, duets and choreographed group production numbers, complete with signature costumes, highlight each performance.
“I remember being at Northlake Elementary and seeing Espree perform and I thought: ‘Oh, I wanna do that some day,’ says former Espree member Catherine Stansbury(’90-’92). “I was thrilled when I made it.”
Since her days with Espree, Stansbury has become involved with Young Life, a Christian outreach ministry aimed at high school students. As a part of that group, Stansbury participates in Young Life’s summer camp, where she puts her singing skills to use.
“A lot of people don’t like leading the people in the room in singing – up to 300. So I volunteered to do it, and I’ve done it every summer. It’s become one of my favorite things. I definitely owe that to Espree,” Stansbury says.
Michelle Dishman also saw Espree perform as an elementary school student and became determined to join the group once she started high school. Little did she know she would meet her husband, Chris, through the group.
They began dating their junior year (’86), and continued even after graduation, when Michelle headed to Stephen F. Austin and Chris went to Abilene Christian. Both transferred back to Dallas after several years – she to dental hygiene school and he to the University of North Texas.
The couple was having dinner one night before an Espree show (they also returned to see the group perform) when Chris handed Michelle an Espree program. He had placed their prom picture inside and a poem asking her to marry him.
“He thought it was kind of geeky, but I just loved it,” Michelle says.
Now, the Dishmans are back in Lake Highlands. Their two children, Morgan and Collin, attend Wallace Elementary, where they are beginning to hone their own performance skills – for Morgan, at the moment, it’s drama, for Collin the drums.
“Espree was amazing for both of us,” Michelle says. “I’d love for my kids to be in it someday.”
The passing of the torch is something Espree is known for. Perhaps musical talent runs in the family, and perhaps it’s the appeal of handing down that tradition. For Claire O’Connor, it’s both. O’Connor, a senior this year, is the last of five members of her family to be a part of Espree.
“I knew I always wanted to be in Espree, but it was not because of [my siblings] – there wasn’t any pressure for me. I definitely always wanted to do it,” O’Connor says.
She has been around music her entire life – her mom is the director of the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, and her dad sings and plays the guitar. She participated in Limited Edition in junior high and Center Stage as a freshman at LHHS – both groups are similar to Espree.
“Any time I could get involved with singing, I jumped at the chance,” she says.
But O’Connor plans to gain more out of the experience than just the singing. “I’m looking forward to bonding with everybody and finishing the tradition of my family.”
Right now, O’Connor and the rest of Espree are preparing for a 25th anniversary show this month.
“It’s going to be the biggest and best show ever,” says Michael O’Hern, Espree’s director since 1997. The group will perform a medley of songs Espree has done over the past 25 years.
When asked why Espree has made it this far, O’Hern is quick to respond. “We joke and say there is no ‘I’ in Espree,” O’Hern says. “Teamwork is the biggest hurdle, but by the time of the performance, we always come together. It’s really the love of music that keeps us going.”