Paul Salerni

Paul Salerni conducts the Lehigh University Philharmonic Orchestra in Baker Hall in November 2023. (Christine T. Kreschollek)

Take a Bow: Five Professors Transformed Music, Theater, Art and Architecture at Lehigh

As Future Makers, Paul Salerni, Steven Sametz, Augustine Ripa, Lucy Gans and Christine Ussler ’81 influenced generations of students.

218 years. That’s the astounding number of years that arts professors Paul Salerni, Steven Sametz, Augustine Ripa, Lucy Gans and Christine Ussler ’81 have spent cumulatively in the consequential task of teaching, mentoring and shaping the futures of Lehigh students over more than four decades.

As individuals, each has made a significant impact in their discipline and, together, on Lehigh.

The university was at a crossroads in 1979 when Salerni, Sametz and Ripa arrived looking for a place to share their artistic passions—Salerni and Sametz in music and Ripa in theater. Gans arrived a couple years later and Ussler soon after that, both in art and architecture.

To put it into historical context, this was five years after Lehigh went co-educational and the university was figuring out how to evolve from a male school seen as focused on engineering and business to one more broadly concerned with shaping well-rounded students of both sexes.

They seized the moment.

Says Sametz: “The then-dean who hired me told me Lehigh was an ‘infertile field for the arts,’ and he did not expect me to stay. I don’t know if that was a challenge, but I think we might have shown there was a lot here waiting to happen.”

The then-dean who hired me told me Lehigh was an ‘infertile field for the arts,’ and he did not expect me to stay. I don’t know if that was a challenge, but I think we might have shown there was a lot here waiting to happen.

Steven Sametz

The number of choral groups quadrupled, providing abundant opportunities for students to perform and have their creations performed. A new Department of Theatre was created. The art department expanded to the Department of Art, Architecture and Design.

And Lehigh’s commitment to the arts became engraved in stone in 1997 with the opening of Zoellner Arts Center, which gave the music and theater departments a beautiful home with abundant rehearsal and performance spaces, and included a first-class art gallery and repository for Lehigh’s art collection.

Music, theater and visual art were always part of Lehigh’s tradition, but during the decades dominated by these professors, the arts became a draw for students of all disciplines and a powerful recruiting tool. Students soaked up opportunities and took their passion out into the world as Future Makers themselves. Some have become architects, artists, composers, directors or professors; others, engineers, lawyers and scientists with a rich engagement in their creative side.

The five also found Lehigh to be a supportive laboratory to create their own art—operas, sculptures, choral works.

As they prepare to retire—officially at the end of 2024 and spring of 2025—there’s talk of traveling, spending time with grandchildren and another chapter of artistic creation. There has been much reflection on, and much praise, for their contributions in both private and public demonstrations—concerts, dinners, exhibitions, video tributes and more.

Here are snapshots of the careers of these influential professors.

Steven Sametz

Steven Sametz is a renowned choral composer with commissions from around the world. (Christa Neu)


Paul Salerni and Steven Sametz

Former students surprised Paul Salerni, the NEH Distinguished Chair in the Humanities and professor of music, with a life-affirming tribute concert at Zoellner Arts Center Sept. 24, 2023. They performed original works and offered testimonials of affection and gratitude.

Salerni—“Coach” to his students—was celebrated as a champion of the arts at Lehigh, as well as an indefatigable mentor and friend. The concert was organized by a team that included Sametz, who will be feted in spring, and Salerni’s sons—Domenic, a violinist with the Attacca Quartet, and Miles, a percussionist with the Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra.

Salerni and Sametz arrived at Lehigh at the same time, embracing the challenge to build something lasting. With Salerni leading the instrumental activities and Sametz the choral, they guided the music department through an unprecedented period of growth. The basic facts tell much of the story.

Paul Salerni conducting

Paul Salerni's students referred to him as "coach." (Courtesy of Paul Salerni)

In 1979, the Department of Music had four full-time faculty and two staff. It was housed in Lamberton, a converted dining hall. There was one choral ensemble, a small string orchestra, a marching band, concert band and a jazz ensemble.

Now there are eight full-time faculty, 32 adjuncts and four full-time staff. There are four choral ensembles, a jazz program with two big bands and four combos, a complete symphonic orchestra and three bands—marching band, wind ensemble and symphonic band.

“The music department was built through the blood sweat and tears of Paul, Steven and Nadine (Sine – 1980-2019, former department chair),” says Travis Laberge ’98, a Salerni student and close friend who now runs a music school in Colorado.

Salerni arrived fresh out of Harvard, looking for a place to teach and create. He wasn’t sure about Lehigh at first, but things started looking up in 1982 with the arrival of President Peter Likins, who was committed to building up the arts and creating an arts center. Likins tapped Salerni and Ripa to help develop Zoellner.

Over the years, Salerni has been conductor of the Wind Ensemble and Lehigh University Philharmonic; founder and director of the Lehigh University Very Modern Ensemble (LUVME, a place for new works) and founder and conductor of the Opera and Music Theater Workshop. He was department chair for 10 years, including this final year. He has led students on study abroad programs in Prague, Belgium and Italy.

Paul Salerni playing keyboard

Paul Salerni (Special Collections, Lehigh University Libraries)

Salerni also has been a prolific composer, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts Distinguished Chair in the Humanities, an honor he held for 18 years.

Ultimately, Salerni says, the most satisfying part of his career has been working with “my very bright and talented students. I am so proud of them as people and as artists and teachers.”

Salerni says Lehigh’s size and the music department’s welcoming spirit gave undergraduates the opportunity to participate in high-level music activity no matter their academic focus.

“I have given Lehigh a broader range of musical styles and opportunities—more opera, more jazz, more contemporary classical music, more art song,” he says. “I hope I have made it possible for more students to have a meaningful experience.”

Laberge says Salerni saw his students as friends and family. Students regularly spend time at the home he shares with his wife Laura Johnson, an opera and stage director, cooking and sharing meals and talking about music and life.

I have given Lehigh a broader range of musical styles and opportunities—more opera, more jazz, more contemporary classical music, more art song. I hope I have made it possible for more students to have a meaningful experience.

Paul Salerni

“I can think of nothing else this world needs more than for someone to care, to encourage and to coach them, and then to release them out into the world and begin the cycle anew,” says Laberge, who has led an effort to raise money for an endowed scholarship in Salerni’s honor.

Sametz’s journey mirrors that of Salerni, but in the choral arts. Fresh from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Yale, he took over as director of Choral Arts, only the fifth director in 155 years. Sametz directs Lehigh University Choral Arts—an umbrella term for the Lehigh University Choir, Lehigh Choral Union, the tenor-bass Glee Club and Dolce, the treble choir. He founded the Lehigh Summer Choral Composers Forum, which brings aspiring composers from around the world to Lehigh every summer.

“The program seemed like there was a lot of room for growth,” says Sametz. “I don’t know that the university anticipated the growth that would happen. It was a wide-open playing field. Nobody had any expectations, and we could dream big.”

As founding director of the Lehigh Choral Union in 1985, Sametz created a successful community outreach program that brings students, faculty, staff and community members together for several concerts a year. Over a hundred community members come to campus every Monday for rehearsal.

One is Peter Stinson ’91 ‘01G, who is now serving as manager of the Choral Union. An engineering and management student who is now a semi-conductor design manager, he knows firsthand the opportunities Sametz provided for those interested in music.

“All of us were majoring in something else,” he recalled, “but we enjoyed singing as a group and doing these incredibly challenging pieces that we wouldn’t have gotten the chance to do if we had gone somewhere else.”

Sametz is the Ronald J. Ulrich Professor of Music, one of two endowed chairs in music. He was instrumental in establishing the Cutler-Sametz Choral Arts Scholarships for students, as well as garnering important support for the choral program from Robert Teufel '59; Peter Finkel '81; the Sebastian family in memory of their son, Bear Sebastian '92; Dan Franceski '64; Robert Shabaker '59; and the Pervall family in memory of Stephanie Pervall '85.

Affectionately known as “Doc” to his students, Sametz has taken the choir around the world. He has led choral arts in performances at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall and Geffen Hall in New York. The final hurrah will be in May, when he leads Lehigh choral participants and alumni on a nine-day concert tour of Portugal.

It’s always great to see alumni who want to come back and sing with us and share the gift of Lehigh University with audiences everywhere. The choral alumni list is second only to the athletic department. It’s one of our lasting legacies.

Steven Sametz

“It’s always great to see alumni who want to come back and sing with us and share the gift of Lehigh University with audiences everywhere,” he says. “The choral alumni list is second only to the athletic department. It’s one of our lasting legacies.”

Outside of Lehigh, Sametz has been the director of the elite a cappella chamber choir The Princeton Singers for 25 of its 40 years. The choir has been artist-in-residence at Lehigh. Sametz is a renowned choral composer with commissions from around the world.

Steven Sametz at Dolce performance

Steven Sametz at a performance by Dolce, the Lehigh University Treble Ensemble. (Christine T. Kreschollek)

The 2023-24 concert season is in itself a tribute to Salerni and Sametz. The LUVME concert in September featured music written by and for the Salerni family during COVID, including a piece by Sametz. Sametz’s Princeton Singers performed twice, premiering a new work by Sametz in October. A major work for chorus and orchestra by Sametz was on the October program of Lehigh Choral Arts.

The Philharmonic concerts in February, “Italian Fables,” featured three pieces composed by Salerni, with text by Dana Gioia, former California Poet Laureate, with whom Salerni has often collaborated. Two March concerts by the Choir, Glee Club and Dolce were a “best of,” and featured a premiere of Sametz’s colorful “Strange Music,” with new choreography by Horger Artist-in-Residence Michael Spencer Phillips.

About 100 alumni returned in December to participate in or enjoy Sametz’s final Christmas Vespers as director. Many also will return May 3-4, when Sametz leads the Choral Arts for the final time. It will conclude with Sametz’s “I Have Had Singing,” which speaks, appropriately, to the simple love of singing and the lasting joy it can bring.

Gus Ripa working with student

Gus Ripa says he felt the most pride and satisfaction “instructing, coaching, mentoring and directing students.” (Christine T. Kreschollek)



It’s not an overstatement to call Gus Ripa the founder of Lehigh’s Department of Theatre.

Lehigh had theater classes and performance opportunities when Ripa arrived in 1979 as an assistant professor in the Department of English, division of speech and theater. But his goal was to create a theater department and bring the joy of theater to a wider group of students.

The Department of Theatre was officially established in 1989. And Ripa took it one step further, securing accreditation in 1990 by the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST). Over the years the department has grown from three to seven tenured faculty, with many more staff and adjuncts. Ripa was department chair for 18 years.

His mentorship of students, the advising, the wisdom he carried and shared freely, it has been invaluable—we all knew it was a gift. We tried to absorb as much as we could.

Kashi Johnson ’93

After earning his MFA in directing at Northwestern, Ripa spent three years teaching students at Illinois Wesleyan. He came to Lehigh, he says, “in search of a good school with bright students, accomplished faculty and the dedication to ‘going to college’ as a major undergraduate goal.”

Ripa’s style and vision led to prestigious positions outside the theater department. He was associate dean of undergraduate programs for four years and director of the Eckhardt Scholars program, the arts and sciences flagship honors program, also for four years. Ripa says those positions made him feel like a full “citizen of the college and of Lehigh.”

Augustine Ripa

In 2016, Augustine Ripa was the keynote speaker at the Class of 2020's University Convocation. (Christa Neu)

Ripa says he felt the most pride and satisfaction in “instructing, coaching, mentoring and directing students from all walks of Lehigh’s undergraduate life.” Some students have gone on to work in commercial/professional theater or as college professors. Most have used the skills earned from a serious study of theater—collaboration; oral, physical and written expression; analysis; empathy; diligence, and hard work—to enrich their chosen professions, he says.

Ripa loves telling the story of Kashi Johnson ’93, who was struggling as an undergraduate when Ripa cast her as the lead in a production of Samuel Beckett’s tragi-comedy “Endgame.” She fell under his spell and it changed her life–she’s an actor, director and professor who is now guiding Lehigh’s theater program as the department chairperson.

Says Johnson: “His mentorship of students, the advising, the wisdom he carried and shared freely, it has been invaluable—we all knew it was a gift. We tried to absorb as much as we could.”

Johnson says her goal for the department is “continue to innovate. To produce new works–world premieres. The department has been forward thinking for so long. Gus has laid the foundation, and we want to continue to exceed expectations.”

As one of his last imprints on the department, Ripa engineered the hiring of assistant professor Joseph Amodei to teach the cutting edge field of immersive media. Amodei is designing alternative realities for theater productions, taking the department to a place it has never gone before.

Lucy Gans in studio

Lucy Gans was honored with her first major retrospective, “Reading Between the Lines,” in Fall 2023. (Matthew Blum)



Gans was the first woman hired as a tenure-track professor in the Department of Art and Architecture. It was 1981, and after working at other institutions, the young art school grad came to teach and create. At Lehigh, she wasn’t pigeonholed—she could teach both 2-D and 3-D and direct her own art studio practice, creating sculpture and drawings. She could pursue her interest in women’s studies and feminist issues.

Gans became an advocate for the importance of art in a liberal arts education, which was the title of the graduation address she gave in 1988 in Packer Chapel at the invitation of former Lehigh President Peter Likins.

She is someone who is so passionate and is able to help others find their passion. You can feel the creativity bubbling out of her.

Stacie Brennan ’03

“I love introducing students to art marking. I think of art as a lifelong skill that one can always fall back on regardless of what their profession is,” she says. “I think the way I’ve shaped art education has been to put everyone in front of a diverse array of ideas and modalities. To show students there isn’t just one way to solve a problem and that we can learn so much from things that can go wrong and how to push through and keep going.”

Gans’ optimism and passion influenced Stacie Brennan ‘03, now is the inaugural curator of education at Lehigh University Art Galleries, after spending five years as senior director of visual arts at ArtsQuest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her job at Lehigh is to create opportunities for both campus and community to engage with the collection and build visibility for the museum.

Lucy Gans sitting with a student who graduated in 1992.

Lucy Gans with Courtenay Engelke ’92. (Lehigh University Special Collections)

Brennan came to Lehigh as a marketing major, but soon found she wanted to explore her love of art. As her advisor, Gans helped Brennan craft a dual degree program that led her to a rewarding career supporting artists and connecting them with their communities.

“She is someone who is so passionate and is able to help others find their passion,” says Brennan. “You can feel the creativity bubbling out of her.”

One of Gans’ major contributions to Lehigh was advocating for every art professor to have one’s own studio. It took six years, her entire pre-tenure period, for her to finally get her own studio on campus, and though the space was cramped at first, she was able to create and work on campus in view of her students and colleagues.

Gans also was pivotal in the development of the Women's Studies program, now the Women, Gender and Sexuality program. As the first faculty director in 1991, she built the entry level classes. She overlaps women’s studies with her art education, and is well known for her advocacy on behalf of women and social justice issues.

Lucy Gans working with a student

Lucy Gans with Olivia Fitzgerald ’20. (Christa Neu)

In 2013, Gans became the Louis and Jane P. Weinstock Endowed Chair in Art and Architecture, the first from her department, which is now the Department of Art, Architecture and Design. It’s a position she held for 10 years and gave her opportunities to expand her creative endeavors and forge connections with artists and activists nationwide.

The exclamation point on Gans’ career came in Fall 2023, when she was honored with her first major retrospective in the Zoellner Main Gallery. “Reading Between the Lines,” which was accompanied by a substantive catalog with pieces written by family and friends, was an expansive, very personal show of sculpture, drawings and prints that explores family narratives, social issues and relationships. The opening reception became a tribute to Gans, with family, friends, colleagues and students recalling her influence on their lives.


Christine Ussler '81 works with students. (Christine T. Kreschollek)



After graduating in 1981 from Lehigh with a Bachelor of Art in Architecture and Urban Studies, Ussler found her way back three years later. She had just received a Master of Architecture from Columbia University when an assistant professor of architecture, Paul Felder, invited her to work with him at his Easton architectural practice, The Architectural Studio, and assist him with teaching. It was the beginning of a 40-year career as a teacher and also as the owner of her own architectural practice.

As Ussler worked her way from adjunct to professor of practice, she also grew a South Bethlehem architectural practice, Artefact, which specializes in historic buildings, major adaptive reuse projects of historic complexes and new buildings.

Her professional work has been a boon for students studying architecture. She has been committed to providing experiential learning opportunities and connecting students with the community.

She doesn’t just teach. She gave us real-world applications and knowledge. She gave us tools we would carry into our careers.

Jessica Johansson ’13

“The practice experience has been an important part of my teaching pedagogy at Lehigh,” says Ussler. “I enjoyed bringing real community problems and opportunities into the classroom for students to study, analyze and design for.”

Projects include one in the Fall 2023 semester, in which students designed prototypes for art display panels for the South Bethlehem Greenway (under construction in Spring 2024 semester) and another involving the design and construction of the Harmony Pavilion on the Greenway in 2012 with University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Norman Girardot. The New York Times wrote a story in the late 1990s about a student project addressing the reuse of the Bethlehem Steel site.

Photo of Christine Ussler ’81

Christine Ussler ’81 (Christine T. Kreschollek)

“I really enjoy working with students,” says Ussler, “and seeing them evolve as they learn about architecture. You don’t know how much of an impact you have until you hear back from them.”

Jessica Johansson ’13, an architectural designer and project manager, is one of many former students mentored by Ussler who took their lessons successfully into the world.

“She doesn’t just teach,” Johansson says. “She gave us real world applications and knowledge. She gave us tools we would carry into our careers.”

Ussler helped with planning the uses of the large spaces when the art and architecture program moved in 2018 from Chandler-Ullmann Hall to Building C on the Mountaintop campus, where there are enormous factory-like spaces for teaching, collaborating and making.

As for the future, Ussler plans to continue practicing architecture at Artefact but will stay connected to Lehigh on community-facing projects the AAD department envisions.

Story by Jodi Duckett

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

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