A Tribute to My Mentor
Almost everyone who has achieved anything in his or her life has had someone behind them who was instrumental in their development. For me, that person was J. Lee Flynn, the choir director during both my junior high school and high school days.
J. Lee was a natural showman with an exceptionally attractive and expressive personality, backed with thorough technical knowledge and solid musicianship. He was a popular teacher; many students fawned over him and sought his favor.
I was – and still am – a shy person, with many interests in addition to music. Although I came from a musical family, and had long participated in choirs, bands, and orchestras, my family life was very difficult; it was certainly not one that would build any confidence in the exceptionally gawky and socially awkward teenager that I was. Despite all of the turmoil at home, I was a straight-A student and a hard worker. For most of high school I was sure that I was headed for a career in medicine, academia, or research. I was never part of – and never wanted to be a part of – the mass of drooling sycophants constituting the “J. Lee Flynn fan club.”
Oddly enough, despite all of his adoring fans, he actually sought me out, casting me in a show-stealing cameo role as the Courier in the Watertown Lyric Theater production of “1776.” Thanks to him many other stage roles and solo opportunities followed. He also encouraged and aided my first efforts as a composer, editing my pieces and suggesting changes and improvements. When J. Lee and Frank Sacci, the band director, got wind that I was contemplating pursuing some career other than music, they called my mother into the music office for a conference. After the meeting, my mother looked at me very sternly and told me, “Well! It seems that you’re headed for life as a musician. They both told me in no uncertain terms that yours is a rare talent that should not be wasted. So you and I have a decision to make, Young Man!” Mother was convinced, even if I wasn’t.
J. Lee, Joan Jones (Music Coordinator for Watertown Public Schools, and founder of Watertown Lyric Theater), Frank Sacci, Owen and Dorothy Willaman, Father Roswell G. Williams III (rector of my parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church), Philip and Roxanne Pratt (Mr. Pratt was my fifth grade teacher), Carolyn Brox (my 10th grade English teacher), Clarence and Betty Giles (fellow parishioners at St. Paul’s) and a few others (known affectionately as “The Baker’s Dozen”, since there were thirteen of them) put their time, heads, and resources together, and raised all the grants and funds needed for me to attend my first year of music school. J. Lee , Frank, and Mr. and Mrs. Willaman drove me to each of my auditions. After my freshman year I was on full scholarship from Hartt College of Music for the remainder of college. The rest, as they say, is history…
As it happened, just about the same time as I had moved to New York, J. Lee , who had retired from teaching, was doing the New York theater audition circuit, and had just landed his first off-off Broadway roles. We saw a fair bit of each other; I attended his shows when I could, and he paid me a visit at my office at Carnegie Hall. I also saw him perform here in St. Paul at the Ordway Music Theater in the national tour of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” starring Tommy Tune. It was a fortunate coincidence, because, on his day off during that run, he came over to St. Louis Church (where I was composer-in-residence) to hear the premiere of my French Mass for choir and orchestra.
It was only a few weeks ago that my wife Deb and I had the great pleasure of seeing J. Lee and Barb and catching up a bit. He was weak, bent over, walking slowly with a cane. Although it was clear he could follow the conversation, it took him awhile to formulate a response. After we said our goodbyes, and Deb and I had gotten in the car, I broke down. I couldn't believe that the person I had known, the person of boundless ideas and joy, was so close to the end. That end came Sunday morning at Samaritan Medical Center, the place where I and so many of us Northern New Yorkers were born.
My life has been a unique and fortunate one, chock full of great music making, travel, and accomplishments. All those things came my way because J. Lee Flynn saw something in me that he felt strongly should be developed and nurtured. I was by no means the only student for whom he did this, but I always knew that he expected me to do a little better, and go a little farther.
Though his body has died, J. Lee’s spirit still lives on, through his family, through the many students he taught and encouraged, and through the great joy he shared with audiences in both his music making and his stage work. It was a great honor and privilege for me to have known him, worked with him, and to have had the benefit of his counsel and help. I owe him more than I could ever begin to repay. May his joyful, energetic, and generous spirit rest in peace.