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posted: 5/31/2012 8:19 AM

Batavia celebrates its 'music man'

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  • Retiring Batavia High School music teacher and band director was honored last weekend at an alumni concert at the high school. Heath has had a great impact on the students, and the community as a whole.

      Retiring Batavia High School music teacher and band director was honored last weekend at an alumni concert at the high school. Heath has had a great impact on the students, and the community as a whole.
    Courtesy of Jonathan McLear

  • Batavia High School music teacher John Heath nearly loses his footing as he changes costumes on the run as part of his act during a homecoming pep rally at BHS.

       Batavia High School music teacher John Heath nearly loses his footing as he changes costumes on the run as part of his act during a homecoming pep rally at BHS.
    CHRISTOPHER HANKINS | Staff Photographer, 2009

 
 

More than 1,200 people filled the Batavia High School gym to honor one who has given our community one of its greatest gifts -- the gift of music.

Like Meredith Willson's popular music teacher in the musical "The Music Man," John Heath has transformed our community just by sharing his love of music with many of us and with our children.

Heath will be retiring at the end of the year after 22 years of service.

It was officially John Heath Day on Saturday, May 26 and the community really came out to honor him.

This year has been one accolade after another. Last fall, the music staff at the high school purchased a brick in honor of Heath that was placed at the National Association for Music Educators in Washington, D.C. In March, John Heath was chosen to conduct the final piece for the Illinois Music Educators Association (IMEA) concert in Peoria. Heath, a past president of IMEA, was also be honored with a proclamation by the General Assembly in Springfield. The Batavia Music Buffs also honored Heath with am engraved brick in the Batavia Fine Arts Centre courtyard.

Colleagues at Batavia High School have been seeing John Heath quite a lot in recent weeks.

Fellow BHS band director Ben Collins created a cutout of Heath that has been moving throughout the building.

"It is really larger than life, since it is six feet tall," said Collins. "Everyone is signing personal messages to him on it."

For Heath, the real joy came when 200-plus returning alumni and parents took the floor to play in the parent alumni band. With only a morning rehearsal, the band was still prepared since John Heath took matters into his own hands and sent out practice music to those who signed up ahead of time.

The returning alums were looking forward to playing again for Mr. Heath. I even heard of one orchestra student, who was studying to become a music teacher, practicing the euphonium to be able to play for Mr. Heath.

Why is John Heath so popular? In a school where many departments never interact with another, John Heath bridged the gap. He went out of the music room and got involved with the kids. His much-anticipated dances at homecoming were legendary. His all-night announcing gig at post prom every year created as much excitement as prom itself.

The real gift, as I mentioned earlier, has been his gift of music. He taught with the utmost patience and his interpretation of the music has always been heartfelt and sincere. When the music came together in a concert, you could see it in the way he directed and the way he responded. You could also see it in the faces of the musicians during the applause.

"Mr. Heath has always been so supportive of each and every student," said Collins. "He encourages all of his 'kids' to go out and follow their dream."

For many of those students, that dream has been music, with a surprising number following in Heath's footsteps and becoming band directors.

"There are so many who have gone on to be band directors -- Bob Mamminga, Cassie Pribble, Vic Anderson, Pat Frederick, just to name a few," said Collins.

John Heath followed in the footsteps of his own band director, Warren Feltes, after playing tuba in the West Aurora band program.

"I went to to the University of Illinois, John's alma mater," said Collins. "He is legendary at U of I. He's the only student to ever be president of the 'Marching Illini' twice."

John Heath is highly respected at the national level as well. Nancy Ditmer, director of bands and music department chair at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio has worked with Heath on a number of occasions. Ditmer will assume the presidency of the National Association for Music Educators this summer.

"I have always found John to be an energetic, passionate and warm music educator who clearly cares deeply about his students and his art," said Ditmer.

"There is no doubt in my mind that folks like John have tremendous influence on their students, in great part because they lead by example. When students see a teacher such as John working hard and enjoying it at a very high level, it is easy for them to be influenced in a positive manner to follow in that teacher's footsteps.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that numbers of John's students have followed his leadership and have become music educators themselves. It's not only a great thing that they followed their hearts in doing so, but it's a great tribute to John and his teaching that they were inspired to do so."

My favorite concert has always been the All City Band Festival where students from fifth grade through high school crowd into the high school gym to showcase the band program. When my son Kevin was a senior, there were close to 1,000 kids participating.

For the combined number, all of the trombone players from the little guys to the high school players marched in playing the popular tune, "Seventy-six Trombones."

Heath might have skipped a beat watching the marching trombones, but he had a smile as big as the bell of his tuba and eyes that glistened with the enjoyment of the moment.

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