CRESTVIEW — If it hadn't been for Cliff Herron, dean of the Northwest Florida State College Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts Division, Crestview High School alumnus Montavius Diamond would never have helped catch his supper from a small boat bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Nor would he have been treated like a touring rock star.
However, for Diamond and hundreds of other Northwest Florida State College show choir students over the past 25 years, such experiences are part of the vocal music program Herron oversees.
Herron, sometimes known simply as "Doc" among his students, will retire in August, but not before leading 31 more students and six adults — his ninth group — to Crestview's sister city, Noirmoutier, France, for a performance tour.
This year, the trip begins with a visit to Normandy and a performance at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
"I think this generation needs to know what that generation did," Herron said. "To stand there in the American Cemetery and see all those crosses and stars of David is very emotional and humbling. The soldiers that died there were 18 or 19, the same age as the kids we're taking over there."
"It is so overwhelming," Crestview High alumna Hannah Kania said. "I'm a wuss. I know I'll cry."
Twanging the emotions is part of Herron's work, whether through art shows, concerts and theatrical performances or the touring Broadway shows that perform at the Mattie Kelly Performing Arts Center.
This summer he will produce his last major summer musical, the stirring "Les Misérables," at the center, which was constructed on the Niceville campus during his tenure.
"Oh my goodness, it seems like just yesterday," Herron said. "The college was a little sleepy college that provided a wonderful resource to the community and all of a sudden, boom, it's a major outreach beyond the counties. It's all just rock solid."
Taking a personal interest in his students endears Herron to the kids.
"He would poke his head in our show choir class and observe and see how we were doing," Diamond said. "He would listen in when we did our voice lessons. I learned a lot about how to balance music with other studies and a lot of it had to do with Doc."
For most of the show choir members, the trip to France isn't just their first travel outside of the country.
"For some it's their first trip away from Florida," Herron said.
When the Soundsations show choir and Madrigals chorus arrive in Noirmoutier, they're treated like visiting celebrities, said Diamond and Kania.
More important, however, are the educational and cultural experiences Herron's trips provided, they said.
"It was very interesting going over with him," Diamond said. "Doc would often stop someplace and tell us about it. It was like having a tour guide with us all time."
Living with host families
As one of three experienced student members of the touring choirs, Kania has been a valuable resource for the novices.
"Everybody's been asking for tips. We tell them be respectful and how to have your wits about you, and how to handle your money," Kania said.
The experience of staying with hosts on the island makes the visits personally and culturally enriching, Kania said.
"My experience having a host family was amazing, so when the opportunity to be a host came up, I couldn't wait," Kania said.
She and her husband, Kenneth, are reciprocating by hosting Mathias Leroy, one of two visiting French business interns in Crestview.
Diamond found himself in his host's fishing boat hauling in the evening's dinner. His experience was so positive that he has saved money to return to Noirmoutier in June with the Crestview Sister City program. One of the first things he hopes to do is to reunite with his host family.
Big shoes to fill
Herron will be succeeded by Jeremy Ribando, the division’s current chair, who will oversee the department's academic component, while current Mattie Kelly Center associate director Jeanette Shires will oversee the arts side.
Apart from traveling and visiting friends, Herron was non-committal about his post-retirement plans, but said his friends in Noirmoutier have not seen the last of him.
"The people in Noirmoutier are just incredible," he said. "It's open arms and loving and giving. It's an absolutely wonderful experience."
"I am very thankful for the experiences I had under Doc," Diamond said. "He kept us in line the whole time we were over there. It was a very unique experience. I would not have been able to do the things I did there if I had gone (to college) anywhere else."
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.