CHICAGO — The "Star Spangled Banner" stirs feelings of patriotism and pride for many Americans, but for a U.S. Marine veteran from Chicago, the national anthem also became a symbol of personal perseverance after some serious setbacks.
It’s never easy to face your fears, but don’t say that to Edward Schrank. His face knows fear all too well.
The father of three served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 15 years. One day, exposure to jet fuel left him feeling sick.
“I was diagnosed with cancer while I was on active duty, in my left tear duct,” Schrank said.
His left eye and parts of his skull were removed, but he stayed in the Marines, adding an eye patch to the uniform. It wasn’t until he started having seizures that he had to retire from active duty. Cancer would come back again, and again.
“On the fifth occurrence, I was told they were going to remove my jaw, and I was never going to speak or eat again,” Schrank said.
With that grim diagnosis, he recorded video memories for his children, and prepared to die. But doctors were able to save his life, keep his jaw, and preserve his spirit.
“And I woke up in the hospital, and I thought, well, I should learn how to sing,” Schrank said.
He set a goal: to sing the "Star Spangled Banner," a song requiring enormous vocal range, and an ability to hit the high note without straining the throat.
“I had read that the stupidest thing in the world to sing is the national anthem,” Schrank said. “Whenever I hear those words: ‘don’t do that, it’s stupid.’ I tend to get attracted to that kind of thing.”
The goal wasn't just to sing the national anthem in the shower. Schrank hoped to to sing it in front of a stadium of people, like at a major league baseball game.
So the 42-year-old realized he needed a teacher. He reached out to no less than Jim Cornelison, a world-renowned singer who's perhaps the most famous national anthem singer in the country. Cornelison performs his rousing rendition of the national anthem at the Ryder Cup, Soldier Field, the United Center and many other iconic venues.
“I hadn’t taught anybody since the fall of ’93, which was grad school,” Cornelison says.
Cornelison knows how hard it is to perform that song, and thought it could be a long-shot. But the former Lyric Opera tenor is known for his deep voice, and deep respect for veterans.
“He’s the best national anthem singer in the world. He’s a national treasure. I haven’t earned this spot. I feel lucky,” Schrank said.
Singing a memorable version of the national anthem is especially challenging, according to Cornelison.
“It’s kind of aggressive. It’s masculine, it’s a little different from how many others do it because you want to touch something inside of people, which is – I think – the purpose of having an anthem,” Cornelison said.
Cornelison says singing has much more to do with controlled breathing and relaxation. The Marine would have to master the mechanics before reaping the results. The two worked for weeks; Cornelison, a caring coach and Schrank, an eager student.
“That’s actual work, that’s actual wood-shedding.” Cornelison said.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Schrank’s opportunity knocked, and he would try to knock it out of the ballpark by singing before the Giants-Diamondbacks game in San Francisco.
“My goal for the fist half of the anthem was to not screw up,” Schrank said. “There’s this feeling that pours through you when you realize: I’m nailing it. And there’s this big smile.”
Cornelison said he felt especially touched and proud because Schrank "elevated" what they'd done over the past few weeks.
"What he did in that performance was on a level that he had not ever done before,” Cornelison said.
Now, Shrank said he finds a bit of personal resonance in the anthem. You can face your fears, if you’ve got a song in your heart.
“Once you let go of that fear, you can fill it with happiness, and that’s why the last three lines are so happy. It’s OK. Whatever the outcome is, my flag is still there,” Schrank said.
Up next, Edward Schrank will sing the national anthem for the Cubs on August 6, and for the White Sox on August 29.