On May 23, the annual spring choral concert at Jefferson Township High School (JTHS) went from a classic yearly event to a timeless tribute to the man who has led the chorus for 35 years. JTHS choral director James A. Wynne recently announced his retirement, and each musical event since November has been shaped by the realization that it would be his last.
“I’m feeling nostalgic and bittersweet, and I know I will miss the kids,” Wynne said in an interview prior to the concert. “But it was time.”
It is no exaggeration to describe Wynne, the choral director and a teacher at JTHS for 35 years, as an icon. He has become famous in the community and beyond for his leadership of the music department and putting on hundreds of concerts and musicals. The JTHS Olde English Feast each December has become a time-honored tradition after 31 years; Wynne wrote, composed, directed, and supervised the entire program each year. He also instituted a high tech music curriculum that has become a model for other schools in the state.
Wynne has a reputation for working long hours, which often extend beyond the work week. For many years, he has led annual trips with the chamber choir to Europe and throughout the United States. The students have seen and experienced a wide range of historic and music-related places and actually performed at such venues as Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, the Grand Ole Opry, Hearst Castle, Faneuil Hall, Graceland, and many others.
Questioned about his obvious dedication to the job, Wynne said it was all fueled by one thing: love and admiration for his students. At the reception following his spring concert, Wynne recounted some advice his first supervisor gave him 45 years ago that became his guiding principle.
“He said if you’re not in this for the kids, then get out now,” Wynne recalled. “He told us that you’ll never be rich, or famous, or powerful, but if you really love the kids, you’ll never work a day in your life – and that’s how I have always felt. This is not a job to me; it’s a way of life.”
JTHS principal Dr. Timothy Plotts called Wynne’s 35 years as choral director “illustrious.” Wynne and his many performances – musicals, concerts, and the Olde English Feast – never ceased to amaze him. “Jim Wynne is an incredible person,” Plotts said. “Getting past all the student lives he’s enriched, the countless lessons he’s given, and the incredible shows and performances he has provided, Jim Wynne is simply a good guy.”
The principal credited Wynne with establishing a high music level that will long endure because he built the foundation with high expectations, diligence, enthusiasm, and an ability to make each student an integral part of the choral team. Plotts called Wynne “irreplaceable” and wished him the best in his retirement. “I want to thank him for all he has done for JTHS and me personally, and promise that we will build on his legacy,” Plotts concluded.
The Spring Concert: “Gone with the Wynne”
At the spring concert, that feeling of love, respect, and admiration Wynne has for his students was returned manifold to the retiring maestro. It was obvious in the effort of the students, the many standing ovations from the audience, and the sheer number of alumni present. One alumnus personified the loyalty and affection his students have for Wynne.
Taylor Hine, a recent graduate who was well known as a prominent member of the chorus, pianist, and performer, was asked by Wynne to be a piano accompanist for the concert. Hine, currently a Rutgers University student, said, “I gave up Billy Joel concert tickets to be here tonight. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
In planning for this last concert, Wynne chose many of his personal favorites. The selections included folk songs such as “Shenandoah,” Broadway tunes like “Somewhere” from West Side Story, gospel songs and spirituals including “Elijah Rock” and “All My Trials,” and just-plain-fun pieces such as the iconic “Can-Can.” And, of course, there were tearjerkers like “Danny Boy” and the Wynne-composed “Farewell Is Not Good-Bye,” which he wrote for this year’s graduation and premiered at the concert.
The concert followed the traditional performance schedule, starting with the chamber choir. Next was an impressive intermezzo piano solo by student David Giambra, playing Frederic Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.” That was followed by performances from both the men’s and women’s ensembles. The second half of the program featured the entire chorus.
There were breaks for quick asides by Wynne to the audience and a video presentation of highlights from the last year, produced by alumnus and current college student Colton Bassett. One jubilant piece was sung in Slovakian. Student Cara Langner explained that it was dedicated by Wynne to his wife, Marlene, whom he affectionately described as his “milk maid of the last 36 years.” Wynne acknowledged each of the 23 seniors who will be graduating this year, bringing them out of the choir for a round of applause. He also introduced the new choral director, Chad Flynn, a JTHS alumnus who had played the king in the Olde English Feast in the late 1990s.
It was obvious in the faces of the students that they felt the magnitude of the situation, and they sang with all they had for their choir director’s last concert. The performances were also laced with humor, a Wynne hallmark over the years. The men’s ensemble made its usual chaotic and noisy entrance to the stage, the women’s ensemble sang and acted out the banterish “Alto’s Lament,” and the full choir danced and swayed to the “Can-Can.”
The concert ended with the traditional rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Wynne invited alumni to join in the performance, and the sheer volume of returning students from every era of Wynne’s tenure seemed to double the size of the choir. Senior citizens mingled with college students and people of all ages in between. The rousing sound of the song rocked the night, almost as much as the standing ovation the director and his beloved students received at its conclusion.
After the concert, Wynne was feted at a reception arranged by alumni working with the school and hosted by Derek Sica, supervisor of music and world languages. Sica said that when Wynne decided to retire, one word came to his mind: Magic. “It was pure magic watching Jim interact with his students,” Sica reflected. “He is a master story teller, and he will be missed.”
The reception, which featured refreshments and a farewell cake, included a long list of people who wanted to say goodbye and pay their tributes. Wynne was joined by his wife as well as his youngest son and his wife, who took the occasion to announce they were having their first child. Wynne is already a grandfather thanks to his older sons.
The first group to laud Wynne was the Facebook Alumni, who presented him with a gift. Acting superintendent Jeanne Howe spoke next. She waved her arms around to indicate the huge crowd representing students, faculty, parents, and peers from all of Wynne’s 35 years. “Here is the testament to the number of lives you have touched in your career,” she said.
Richard Barrieres, Wynne’s counterpart for instrumental music, said he considered Wynne a close friend, mentor, and colleague. Longtime friend Peter Tummillo, another JTHS icon, recounted how the two men have known each other since their days at Montclair State College. Tummillo drew laughter from the crowd by revealing that Wynne’s fraternity name was “Flash,” and said that his colleague had molded the JTHS choral program into one of the finest in New Jersey.
The last offering from the gathered guests was a performance by all alumni present, joined by current choir students. They sang one of Wynne’s favorite songs, a choir convention called “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” Finally, Sica honored Wynne with a plaque and gift card from the school.
Then it was the guest of honor’s turn to speak. Wynne acknowledged the bittersweet feeling of the moment and thanked his many supporters over the years. This was when he recounted the advice of his first boss 45 years earlier that became his guiding force.
“I have always loved my work and my kids,” Wynne said. “I always came in early and worked late, and it’s been wonderful. My students even come to my house – but not any more, as they broke stuff last time,” he joked.
Wynne recounted some of the many highlights of his career, such as conducting the chamber choir at Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame, the 31 years of Olde English Feasts, the hundreds of concerts, and the spring musicals. He thanked his peers, his students, and the parents whose help made it possible.
“After all these years, I am not really going away,” he concluded. “I still have my fingers and toes, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Thank you!”
Wynne plans to be very active in retirement and spend time traveling. He said he would be around and available if needed – Jefferson Township has not seen or heard the last of the old maestro.