Published Online: April 23, 1997

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Milwaukee teacher Nancy Ehlinger has really put her money where her mouth is.

The music teacher's high school choir couldn't pass up a chance to sing at New York City's Carnegie Hall, so Ms. Ehlinger decided to foot the bill.

"My banker said, 'I think you're nuts,' " she said, adding that her friends "don't know whether to call me a hero or a lunatic."

Some would say she is a hero.

Ms. Ehlinger borrowed $28,800 from her individual retirement account and another $8,000 from her credit cards to help the Rufus King High School Women's Ensemble perform at Carnegie Hall with four other groups this month.

The 43-member ensemble received the invitation from the New York City-based Mid America Productions in September, and the members were able to collect $4,000 through fund-raising events such as bake sales. But they still needed at least $40,000 more to cover the rental of the hall, airplane tickets, hotels, and transportation for the group.

Ms. Ehlinger sent out 50 letters to foundations asking for help. There was only one response, a $1,000 grant from a foundation in California.

"We fund raised day and night," she said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the students."

Their break came when an article done by a local newspaper got picked up by the national press. Ms. Ehlinger and her ensemble have been flooded with letters and donations ever since.

"People have sent anywhere from to a dollar to $500," she said. "It's been overwhelming--I cry when I read the letters."

At last count, Ms. Ehlinger had received $19,000.

She has set up an account to pay back the money to her IRA. If there is any extra money left, it will be used to buy music equipment and send students to a summer music clinic at the University of Wisconsin.

When the Women's Ensemble steps on stage to perform its selections Sunday, Ms. Ehlinger wants the members to think about all the people who have been there before them.

Ms. Ehlinger herself has performed twice at Carnegie Hall, as a member of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and of the Milwaukee Symphony Chamber Singers.

"I want to make music a really educational experience for these kids," said the 56-year-old, who has taught for 35 years and spent her past 10 with the inner-city Rufus King High School.

One of the best things about the event, Ms. Ehlinger said, is that her students have found out there are "many nice people out there."

--ADRIENNE D. COLES acoles@epe.org

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