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pic for MGWhen the SCASD Educational Foundation asked for nominees for the Maroon and Gray Society, people who have made significant contributions to the world around them, it didn't take long for John R. Kovalchik's name to come up.

Teaching in the district for forty years, starting the minute his draft status switched to 4-F therefore precluding a career in the army, this teacher shaped students for four decades using his baton and the philosophy that music instruction was his vehicle to make the best adults that he possibly could.

And he did exactly that.

In an article in State College Magazine, then-student Abbey Harrington said about him, “He always says his goal is to make his students better people — if we made some music along the way, that was a bonus. His dedication and passion for achieving this goal are what has made him an excellent educator and one of the most influential people in my life.”

We reached out to Mr. Kovalchik to talk more about his tireless work molding students through what he calls 'those little ink spots on a page,' his most unforgettable moment leading the marching band, and what he told his students every time they left his class. Read on!

SCASD: How long did you and your wife (fellow teacher Joan) teach for the State College School District?

JK: Joan was a State College native, and she came back to teach elementary instrumental music in 1969. We met in 1971 when I started student teaching. I was studying music education at Penn State and in those days, student teaching was scheduled into your regular class day. When I met her, she was one of three instrumental cooperating teachers that I had that term. My job offer to teach in the State College Area came from another one of my cooperating teachers, Dr. Lenore Horner, who asked if I would be interested in filling her position for a year while she finished her doctorate. When my draft status was changed to 4F because of my pes planus (flat feet) in 1971, I took the job.

Joan taught until 1977 when our son John arrived, and two years later, Robert. She stayed at home with the boys until they went to school. She did some substitute teaching and eventually got back to full time status. We both retired in 2011.

SCASD: Tell us your favorite part of teaching music and band.

JK: When I was a student, I had two music teachers who impressed me and led me into this profession. I understood from them that there was much more to teaching music than just music, and I tried to emulate them.

Small group lessons were important to me because it was an opportunity to really communicate with students. Our discussions could easily dwell on topics related to every other curriculum in the district. I allowed students to speak freely on any topic that might be bothering them and maybe I could help them resolve how they felt about things. My number one goal every day was to make them responsible adults who could think for themselves and take care of each other.

Band rehearsals were run differently. I did not allow time for banter. Turning those ink spots on the page or the sounds floating through their brains into music did not allow much free time. Still, I tried to set a good example. A quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is a favorite of mine. "Preach always, and if necessary, use words." Whether he said it or not I used it. To me there is no better method of teaching than setting a good example.

SCASD: Do you have a favorite memory about your time leading the band? 

JK: Picking a favorite is almost impossible, but I will never forget the week of 9/11. There was quite the debate over whether or not certain school activities should be held that week, especially things like Friday night football games. It was determined that life should continue to be as normal as possible, so the games continued. State College was to play at Altoona that Friday and the marching band was to attend. Rich Victor had already written a show that included a medley based on the Civil War songs "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." He then edited the script that I was to announce before the performance to include an explanation of the song and a moment of remembrance for those involved in the previous Tuesday's attacks.

At the appropriate time I read the announcement. Typically, most football crowds only pay perfunctory attention to halftime shows unless they are band parents or alumni of marching bands. But that night was different. At the midpoint of the song, two trumpets echo fanfares to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It was at this time that I realized how quiet the crowd was. As the band performed the verse, there was a palpable crescendo from the crowd, not of volume, but of tension. When the band hit the chorus, the crowd fairly exploded! (Now, 17 1/2 years later and I can barely write this!) I've performed and attended many musical performances for almost 60 years and that was definitely the most profound.

SCASD: Can you tell us about your other involvement and activities in the community?

JK: As you might expect, most of my activities are music related. In 1971 within weeks of getting married and starting my career, I sat in with the Tarnished Six Dixieland Band and soon became their full time tubist. I played with them until 2015. At some point I have performed with The Little German Band, the State College Municipal Band, the Nittany Valley Symphony and other local musicians. I have always been involved with the Alumni Blue Band and I am back on the executive board as a member and liaison to the College of Arts and Architecture. I am often called back into the schools to help with various activities and sometimes just to observe and critique. I am now involved as an adjunct lecturer of low brass at Juniata College where I also perform on tuba with their concert band and string bass in their orchestra.

SCASD: In your view, what is the lifelong impact that your music teaching has had in your students’ lives?

JK: I always believed that music instruction was my vehicle to make the best adults that I could. My last assignment of many in the school district was as the instrumental music teacher to seventh and eighth graders at Mount Nittany Middle School. I introduced myself to my seventh graders by saying that they were at the beginning of my two year plan to make them the best adults that I could. If we managed to make music in that time it would be a bonus. I'd like to think that I was successful.

I am truly honored to be recognized for my work by the Maroon and Gray Society. I often told my students that it is amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit, but I will admit that being recognized as one who has given significant contributions to such a successful music program in such a successful school district is an honor. I am pleased to be joining my friends Richard Victor and Robert Drafall who were inducted last year. I remember joking to Rich when we first heard about the Maroon and Gray Society that our department would be like the Steelers from the '70's, who would not be in the Hall of Fame?

SCASD: If you could give high school students one piece of advice as they prepare for adulthood, what would it be?

JK: There are actually two things that I cannot separate. Most of my band rehearsals were in the morning, either first or third period. I always tried to dismiss the students with, "We have a day here, make it a good one." "Have a nice day" leaves too much to chance. The other part was simply to treat others the way you want to be treated.

The summation of my life and career is something else that I received from my parents. People often greet each other with the phatic, "How ya doin'?" and I made it a habit to reply, "Couldn't be better," which more often than not caught them by surprise. The explanation is simple. If it could be better, do something about it, don't just complain.

 John R. Kovalchik is a 2019 Maroon & Gray Honoree. The Annual Maroon & Gray Society Banquet will be held on May 18, 2019. Individual tickets are $80. To register, click here