On September 2, 2016, Chad Breitz died suddenly and tragically by his own hand. Chad was a talented photographer and musician, as well as being an active member of Jacksonville Chapel in Lincoln Park. A recent graduate of JTHS, Chad's death was a heartbreaking blow to his family, his many friends, and Jefferson Township as a whole.
A little over a month ago, Chad's mother, Susan Breitz, contacted JT CONNECT, a local group that strives to educate and raise awareness of mental illness about the possibility of doing a fundraising event that would also celebrate Chad's memory. Through the hard work and dedication of several members of the community, most notably Rich Barrieres, Director of the JTHS Wind Ensemble, and James Wynne, Director of the JTHS Chamber Choir, a benefit concert was held on April 26, 2017 at the JTHS Auditorium. But to simply call it a concert is to do the event a major disservice and barely begins to describe what turned out to be a truly memorable evening.
Billed as "An Evening of Hope In Memory of Chad Breitz," this was so much more. Yes, it was an opportunity to raise funds for JT CONNECT, but in a larger sense it was a grand celebration. At a time when words like "magic" and "spirit-filled" are overused to the point of being meaningless, this was an evening where there was a wonderful spirit in the air and those in attendance, be they performers, friends, members of the Jefferson mental health support community or just people who came to hear great music did their utmost to transform the heartbreak of Chad's death into hope for the future.
Upon entering the auditorium there were two tables that commanded everyone's attention. The first table staffed by Maria Weathers, a relative of the Breitz family handed out wrist bands with Chad's name and a reference to Matthew 11:28 which reads "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest" (NRSV) as well as handmade wooden hearts with the word "Hope" on one side and selected Bible verses on the other. Weathers encouraged people to take extras to give to their friends who could not make the event. It was just one way of spreading the message of hope in an evening where that message was the dominant theme.
Next to Weathers table was a display from JT CONNECT, which was the beneficiary of the funds raised by the concert. Staffed by several members of the group, including Jefferson Township Council President Debi Merz, JT CONNECT's table offered informative pamphlets on many different aspects of mental health as well as large buttons with various slogans that talked about mental health awareness and eliminating the stigma of mental illness. One of the most poignant ones read, "It's OK to be not OK." Both tables received a great deal of attention from the concertgoers, but soon it was time for the musical part of the event to begin.
The Jefferson Township High School Wind Ensemble was the first group on stage and under the direction of Barrieres, they performed "Emperata Overture" by Claude T. Smith and "Each Time You Tell Their Story" by Samuel R. Hazo. This would have been touching enough as a standalone piece, but on this night with all the emotions in the nearly completely full auditorium, it's effect was mesmerizing. After this piece, Barrieres spoke briefly about Chad and introduced the third piece "Night on Fire" by John Mackey. which he dedicated specifically to Chad. The composition has a great deal of percussion in it and Chad played in the percussion section when he was a student at JTHS. The piece was played flawlessly and after the Wind Ensemble's final offering, "Loudon Praises" by Brian Balmages, a recent guest conductor at the school, the crowd rose to their feet as one and delivered the first of many extended standing ovations.
As the students in the Wind Ensemble left the stage, Chad's parents Jeff and Sue Breitz stood at a podium illuminated by a single spotlight and talked about Chad's life while pictures, including several taken by him, were projected on a screen. They spoke of how they believed that even after "the final sin," Chad was in Heaven and how Chad's birthday was 10 days earlier on April 16th, Easter Sunday. The Breitzes spoke about how at the end, Chad felt he had no friends and then when they asked everyone who knew Chad to stand up, well over three-quarters of the audience rose to their feet. Their concluding remarks were about things of hope; they asked the audience to clap when anything they said struck a chord with them. The response was almost continuous rounds of applause.
After Chad's parents left the stage, The Impact Band took the stage and played two pieces by award-winning Christian artist Danny Gokey, "Tell Your Heart to Beat Again" and "Hope in Front of Me." The group is a student ministry of Jacksonville Chapel in Lincoln Park, which is the Breitz family's home congregation. Pastor Dan Krulan mentioned how Chad had been involved with the band and the connection showed as at times during their brief set, members of the band appeared to be holding back tears in Chad's memory.
During a brief intermission, Barrieres said that the evening's concert was the second one of its kind; the first one held in 2016 benefitted the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He mentioned Chad's love of music and how Chad played percussion when he was a member of the school band.
Following the intermission, James Wynne, director of the JTHS Chamber Choir, introduced his choir and alluding to the difference between the previous pieces those selected for this last part of the evening, invited the audience to "let the motion of the music wash over you." Their seven-song set began with the beautiful Shaker Song, "I Hunger and Thirst" and then moved into "Set Me as a Seal" by John Leavitt. Wynne mentioned how the choir had performed the song at a memorial service for Henry Sudia last fall and how upon learning of this evening's concert, the students suggested they perform it again. Next was the "Cantique de Jean Racine," a French impressionist piece by Gabriel Faure, which they followed with "Va Pensiero" from the opera "Nabucco" by Giuseppe Verdi. Wynne noted that Nabucco was Verdi's "first big hit"as a composer of operas.
The tone began to shift slightly with the singing of Stacey Gibbs' arrangement of the popular spiritual "Down by the Riverside" with its repeating of the haunting phrase, "ain't gonna study war no more." The evening's penultimate piece was the gentle and plaintive "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" by Peter Lutkin, which closes with a seven-fold Amen. The final piece of the evening was the well-known and oft-quoted "It Is Well With My Soul" by John Ness Beck with its enduring theme of comfort despite great trials. It is doubtful they could've selected a more fitting piece to close out the concert.
After yet one more thunderous standing ovation, the crowd left the auditorium but lingered in the hallway perhaps to hang onto to the message and emotion of the evening. People were hugging each other in support and camaraderie. There were smiles for the artistic excellence of the performers and for friends and neighbors. There were openly shed tears of sadness for the loss of a dear friend, but most of all there was a tangible if indescribable spirit in the air. On this evening when Jefferson Township gathered together to pay tribute and give support following a tragedy which almost defies description, the audience was witness to how the gifts of music and community worked together to transform heartbreak of the past into hope for the future.
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