Oliver: Mr. Leighty’s lessons prove to be lasting

Good teachers, it is said, inspire their students to achieve.

The very best ones inspire their students to find their passion, to learn to follow the song within their own hearts.

My high school band teacher, John L. Leighty, was just that sort of teacher.

Mr. Leighty, or “J.L.” as we called him, taught band and chorus at McHenry High School for many years, retiring in 1986, the year I graduated.

It was with great sadness that I learned that Mr. Leighty died Friday in Jacksonville, Ill., at the age of 85.

Mr. Leighty was born in 1927 in Pana, Ill. It was there that he met his wonderful wife, Eloise, whom he married in 1952. (Our newspaper profiled them in July in honor of their 60th wedding anniversary.)

He would go on to graduate from Illinois Wesleyan University with a degree in music.

In 1963, he and Eloise moved to McHenry, where she was a longtime teacher at Edgebrook and Landmark elementary schools.

Mr. Leighty’s love of music was infectious, as was his laugh.

That is not to say that he would never get frustrated at us. After all, he was trying to teach music to teenagers.

What patience he showed, particularly with our jazz band. It took years for me to fully understand the syncopated rhythms of the Big Band swing music that was so close to Mr. Leighty’s heart.

How wonderful it was that he was able to tour with the Guy Lombardo Band for 10 years after his retirement. And that he was able to play with the McHenry, Crystal Lake and Woodstock city bands, as well as the Fireball 8 ensemble, for many years.

Through it all, Mr. Leighty always was his students’ greatest cheerleader. Or at least he always seemed to be one of mine.

My freshman year, I played bass clarinet, a switch from B-flat clarinet that I had made in junior high. He allowed me to switch back my sophomore year and delighted when I did well at the Solo and Ensemble Contest that year.

Of course, that just made him choose an even harder solo for me to tackle the next year. His belief in me was matched by his willingness to work extra hours to make sure I was prepared.

In my senior year, when I was pulled away from band by other pursuits, I knew that he was disappointed because he told me so in his grandfatherly way.

But the beauty of Mr. Leighty’s example was that I could see in him what I ultimately was lacking.

Mr. Leighty lived for music. It was his motivator, his fire.

If you’ve seen “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” then you’ve caught a glimpse of Mr. Leighty in the classroom. It will forever remind me of him and the importance of music education in schools.

In my heart, I knew that music would be a wonderful pastime, but it would never be a passion. I did not have the dedication to it that he had.

Mr. Leighty’s lessons went far beyond notes on a page. He inspired me to find my own passion. 

And it’s a song that I won’t let go out of my heart.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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