Teacher Tuesday: Tom Thomas, Scottville’s Music Man.

June 9, 2020

Teacher Tuesday: Tom Thomas, Scottville’s Music Man.

Teacher Tuesday is a presentation of Metalworks, a small, family-run company with facilities located in Ludington and Manistee, manufacturing metal office filing systems. Be sure to show your support by liking the Metalworks Facebook page.

By Kate Krieger, MCP Staff Writer.

SCOTTVILLE – With an influence stemming back to junior high, Mason County Central band and choir director Tom Thomas was bound for music education, even before he could even drive a car.

“I started playing tuba the summer after sixth grade,” Thomas said. “My junior high band director, Russell Peters was also a tuba player and the sousaphone they gave me to learn on belonged to Mr. Peters. It sat in the band room on a chair stand. The band room doubled as an overflow for the cafeteria and kids used the sousaphone as target practice for the fruit and milk cartons they were done with. I began my tuba playing by taking the sousaphone into my back yard and running water through it with the hose. All those things thrown in the instrument came out. Then we used silver polish and some elbow grease and made that sousaphone shine. The first day of school, Mr. Peters saw the sousaphone and got tears in his eyes. They put me in eighth grade band when I was in seventh grade because they did not have a tuba player in the eighth-grade band.”

Thomas viewed Peters as a mentor and he really respected him. He said Peters had been the band director at his junior high for many years, but he also knew he had grown ill.

“He suffered from kidney failure,” Thomas said. “He had taught for like 40 years in Royal Oak. He would on occasion have to leave school to fly to Tacoma, Washington for treatment. So, during my eighth grade year, Mr. Peters called me in his office after class and told me he thought I should become a band director, and to teach in a small school — not a big school with a big program — but a small school where I could share my love for music with the kids there. Mr. Peters went into the hospital shortly after that meeting and never came out.”

During summer band, Thomas had learned the news of the passing of his mentor, Mr. Peters and he was devastated.

“In June of 1970, during summer band, our director came out to tell us that Mr. Peters had passed away,” he said. “I auditioned for and made the top band at Dondero High School in Royal Oak under the direction of Mr. Joseph Parker. He made Dondero HS one of the finest bands in the state.”

During Thomas’ senior year of high school, he auditioned for the United States Army Band. He became a member of the US Army Band in June after graduation. “I graduated and went off to the U.S. Army for eight and a half years,” Thomas said. “I was playing my tuba throughout Europe, Central and South America and the US and in the process, I married Donna Marston at Fort Devens, Mass, in 1978. Our son, Andrew was born in Panama in 1980 and then our second son, Josh was born at Fort Polk, La. in 1982.”

After President Reagan announced he was going to try and eliminate the GI Bill, Thomas decided to listen to some old advice from someone very dear to him. He remembered his junior high band teacher, Mr. Peters and how he told him he should become a teacher.

“I decided to leave the service and go to college, remembering what Mr. Peters had told me years earlier,” he said. “I called my high school teacher, Dr. Parker, who now had left public school teaching and was professor of music at Asbury College in Kentucky. He told me to come to the college and he would work out the details.

I went to Asbury from January 1983 to May of 1985. We left Kentucky and moved to New Hampshire to Donna’s family’s home and I went to University of New Hampshire for one semester. Then I was called first by Dr. Ron Holz at Asbury, who wanted me to return to Kentucky.

I went on tour with the band in the spring of 1986 and while on tour I was called by Donna from New Hampshire saying Dr. Parker wanted me in Missouri; he was now teaching at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo. I took a bus from Kentucky to Missouri and auditioned in front of the dean of music and Dr. Parker. They offered me a lot of scholarship money to come to SBU, so we packed the family up and moved to Missouri. I graduated from SBU in 1988 and began my teaching career.”

After teaching for eight years in Missouri, Thomas and his family moved to Ludington after he accepted the position of the sixth through 12th grade band director. He remained in Ludington until 2000, when he accepted his current position as the band and choir director at Mason County Central Schools and even moved to Scottville. Thomas has served as band director for MCC longer than any other person in the school’s history.

Thomas said music education has always been important to him, but he also knows the importance of it for all students.

“Music is important in our education,” he said. “It offers us the opportunity for creativity. It makes us use more of our brain than virtually any other subject. Studies show us that listening to, playing, reading, and creating music involves practically every part of the brain. Music students do better, statistically, in other classes in school. It is logical, mathematical, it is language, it is science (acoustics, physics). it is linked throughout history. It is fun.”

As a music teacher, Thomas not only teaches the fundamentals of music, but moreover, he teaches kids, a concept he believes is often lost in the everyday chaos of teaching.

“The thing I have noticed over the course of 30-plus years of teaching is something a mentor teacher asked me in like my third year of teaching,” he said. “She asked me what I taught and I said music and band. She said no I didn’t. I taught kids. Music and band was what I gave to them. She told me to get to know my kids and they would respond. So, over the last 30 years I have seen a lot of teachers that teach subjects, not kids. That, beyond everything else, is what I would change. Beyond all the testing and evaluations, get to know the kids. Be involved.

“In my student teaching, there was a girl who had been absent from seventh grade band for over a week. I asked one day if anyone knew what was up and someone said she was really sick. I mentioned we should get her a card. My host teacher called me in after class and told me I could not be concerned about my students. I needed to teach the ones who were there and get them out. I hope I never get that cynical. All my students are my kids. I care about them.”

During the 20 years he has taught at MCC, Thomas has enjoyed working with his students. He said all of his students over the three decades of teaching have all brought him different joys.

“I love working with youth in music and seeing them succeed,” he said. “I remember one year in Eminence, Mo. when the judge called me over and said she knew Eminence and my students were performing at levels she had never seen from there. Once in Gainesville, Mo., a school that had a history of earning awful scores at festival, the band earned straight 1s. That feeling never gets old. When I taught in Ludington, we had an incredible bunch of musicians in the band. It was so much fun to work with them. But there are no words that can convey the wonderful feelings I have for the kids in Scottville. They accepted me immediately and we have done so many great things together in the last 20 years.”

Thomas said that seeing students succeed is the most important thing about teaching and he has a few pieces of advice for those looking to become teachers themselves.

“I would advise anyone considering going into education and specifically music education to ask themselves why they want to do that to themselves,” he said. “As I mentioned earlier, I teach kids, not music. Do you have a passion for kid’s success? Do you care about them? Can you imagine yourself doing anything else? If you can answer those questions and still want to teach, then ask yourself this:  do you play piano? Are you willing to sit in a practice room, sleep deprived, to learn it well enough to pass proficiency? Can you give the hours to practice your main instrument or voice to do your juries and recitals to pass that part? Will you be willing to teach in any size school, in any grades?  These are all questions that will be answered sooner or later.

“In the end, there is not a calling more satisfying than seeing your students go on to love and perform music into their adult years, whether or not they go on to teach themselves.”

To go full circle, Thomas and his mentor, Mr. Peters also share a similarity in their health, which he stated as sort of “creepy.”

“As my junior high director played tuba professionally, so have I,” he said. “As he taught many years in public schools, so have I. As he had kidney failure, so have I. I am in stage four kidney failure, just well enough to not be on dialysis at this time. I am diabetic and so I have an interesting diet that is limited to sugars, limited to sodium, limited to liquid intake. Many of my friends have suggested that I should retire now and enjoy life while I can. However, I am not ready. I have more to give and I need these kids in my life. I love them all like my own. When the time is right, I will know.”

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