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Mr. Kowallis' opus: Getting extraordinary results

June 10, 2002|by BILL KOHLER

Nearly everyone who knows him has a story.

I couldn't help but smile as I read the article last week in The Morning Herald about Gerald "Jerry" Kowallis, the retiring Waynesboro Area High School choral music director and music department chairman.

I had planned to write a tribute/send-off column about Mr. Kowallis (I still feel weird - even at the age of 36 - calling him "Jerry") since I found out he was retiring. As I pondered my stories, I reached deep into the recesses of my memory banks.

What I found there was quite entertaining. I discovered that those two high school years participating in choral music and in school musicals were two of the most enjoyable years I can remember.

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They weren't easy, but they were gratifying, rewarding and - I know this sounds corny - educational.

While reflecting, I thought about the Wayneaires and singing and dancing on those shaky portable risers that he used to carry to performances in the back of his white VW Bus.

Being from a teaching family, I acknowledged the incredible amount of patience all teachers have, but especially Kowallis and other music instructors, when they are teaching a bunch of geeky, gangly boys (not me and the Mikes, of course) how to sing and smile and dance and step forward all in a span of a few seconds.

I thought about his sense of humor and how our group surely wasn't the first or last to test it.

I thought about how cool the harmonies sounded during my first couple of Wayneaires practices. It was a whole new world opened up to me.

I thought about the Tribe, the all-male choir that's been in place for nearly 50 years. In 11th grade, my best buddy Mike Wray and I forged a protest against joining the Tribe because we would have to wear those awful-looking turtlenecks. We were too cool to wear turtlenecks and sing with other guys, we thought. All the jocks and tough guys would think we were sissies.

What an uncool thought. Our senior year, Kowallis laid down the law that we would have to join the Tribe in order to stay in the Wayneaires. Reluctantly, we did it and after the first week, I was mad that I hadn't joined the previous year. I still get chills when I hear some of the numbers we sang and I loved singing the Tribe theme song, "Brothers Sing On," at Kowallis' final concert last month.

I thought about the passion, patience and dedication he always showed, even when we were being a pain in his neck, and even when we asked him stupid questions or were trying to get a laugh out of good friends Beth, Rosemary and Missy.

I could see he still had the passion during that May concert. He still seemed to leave his feet when he started a song. He shared funny stories between numbers. He displayed the fervor and energy of a guy just starting his 38-year career in Waynesboro, not ending it.

I remembered back when I was a kid and my parents took us to see the Waynesboro teachers' production of "Oklahoma" and Kowallis played the lead of Curly. (I guess that was a few years ago, wasn't it?) I was mesmerized by how cool he was and how his booming voice filled the whole auditorium. (Jay Heefner was incredible as the peddler, Ali Hakim, too.)

I remembered how Kowallis went out of his way to put the spotlight on the students. He always seemed to be fair to everyone in a place (high school) where fair wasn't always part of the curriculum.

I remembered how it was always about the music, enjoying yourself and entertaining the crowd. He was flexible and changing, too. There always was a good mix of traditional and classic music on the menu of songs to learn and perform.

In reporter Richard F. Belisle's story, Kowallis said he would like to be remembered like this:

"I'm most proud of the fact that I achieved extraordinary results with ordinary kids."

Perhaps that is Mr. Kowallis' opus. That is his masterpiece, his symphony, his legacy. I was one of thousands of ordinary kids who didn't know a flat from a sharp or a "C" from an "E."

But more than anything, he made ordinary kids feel extraordinary. For every standout singer, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary kids who learned about music, had a great time and performed in front of a crowd for the first time.

That's Mr. Kowallis' opus.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Morning Herald. Reach him at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or e-mail him at billk@herald-mail.com.

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