West Oak band director ready for swan song after 29 years

  • John Harshey

    John Harshey

  • West Oak band director John Harshey conducts a band class Thursday in Mundelein. Harshey plans to retire at the end of this school year.

      West Oak band director John Harshey conducts a band class Thursday in Mundelein. Harshey plans to retire at the end of this school year. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Posted2/3/2017 5:30 AM

As fundraisers go, the spaghetti dinner to benefit the instrumental music program at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein has legs.

As always, the annual event from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the school will feature food and a sample of student talent for parents, alumni and supporters.


"That's the most important thing," said John Harshey, who joined Diamond Lake District 76 as band director in 1986 and created the event that has raised as much as $12,000 in a year for instruments and program-related expenses.

However, this 29th installment will be bittersweet for friends of the program because it will be a swan song for Harshey, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

"It's going to be a big deal when he leaves," said Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis. "He is leaving a legacy of a role model, of a leader, of a mentor to students, not just a teacher."

This music program has been a constant for decades at West Oak, the only middle school in the small school district. It is considered a voluntary class, rather than an extracurricular activity, and taught five days a week. This year, the seventh/eighth grade symphonic band class has about 62 students.

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"We always had a large portion of the kids in band -- 30 (percent) to 40 percent," Harshey said. "We have a very small drop-off rate."

Principal Chris Willeford said Harshey has been instrumental in developing the program.

"The number of awards and plaques displayed in the band room is a testament to this highly successful program," Willeford said.

Students also can participate in a jazz extension, which allows them to grow creatively and musically, he added.

But it is the high quality of instruction that has kept it among the area's premier middle school band programs.

Some students will emerge as great or even fantastic, Harshey said. All will be good.

"It's just motivating them to do the work," he said of his teaching.


When they launched the annual fundraiser nearly three decades ago, Harshey and volunteers cooked 35 gallons of spaghetti sauce in house for the event. The kitchen has since been removed and it has been catered the past three years.

Harshey said that while he'll miss many aspects of his job, he feels it's time to do something different.

He says he'll still play the tuba, do some woodworking and hit the golf links. Before that, though, there is a solo and ensemble contest in Lake Zurich in three weeks to prepare for.


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