Jim Gay had second thoughts about retirement on May 19. That was the day Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontario’s schools would stay empty for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.
As the veteran music teacher says, though, these were very fleeting second thoughts. Once he sets his mind to something, it’s pretty final.
He admits, however, that he feels the need for closure. To that end, he plans to return to Eden High School in the fall, if it’s open by then, to volunteer with the band and perhaps help out in some of the classes.
Gay’s 28-plus years of teaching have taken him from Grimsby’s Grand Avenue Public School, through 11 years at Beamsville District Secondary, to his longest stint in one building, the past 15 years at Lakeport, then Eden High.
It’s been a rewarding career, and to observe him in class is to see someone who truly loves his students, and truly loves what he does. But a career in teaching is something Gay never imagined until an influential Mohawk College instructor suggested it.
The Niagara Falls native says his love of big band music was instilled in him by his parents. As early as Grade 4, he remembers picking up the recorder and being able to play simple songs almost immediately. As a high school student at Westlane Secondary School, he enrolled in music class and decided on the saxophone, mainly because of his parents’ love of the instrument. Like he did with the recorder, he remembers playing songs on the saxophone on his first day in class.
At 17, his affinity for music and his experience as a member of the school’s award-winning jazz band led to his first professional gig. He was hired as part of the horn section with a local group, the Rubber Band, for a New Year’s Eve gig, earning $140 for the night.
That began a string of 40-plus years as a professional musician, including about seven years with pianist Doug Mundy in the house band at the Prince of Wales. For much of that time, of course, he was also teaching full-time and raising his four children with his wife, Chris.
After Westlane, he enrolled in the Applied Music program at Mohawk College. It was an encounter with instructor Dave McMurdo, a member of Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass and a fixture in the Canadian jazz scene, that served as his ‘aha’ moment.
“I was walking through the halls one day between classes,” recalls Gay. “He pulled me aside, and he said, ‘you know, Jim, you could do the teaching gig if you really wanted to, you have the patience for it.’ And then he walked away.”
The seed was planted. A couple of years later, Gay enrolled at Brock University, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a major in music and a minor in history. Brock’s Faculty of Education was his next stop, and he was hired to teach at Grand Avenue, before he had even finished teacher’s college.
Two years later he made the jump to high school, signing on to teach music in Beamsville. He remembers his 11 years there fondly. One of his BDSS students, Victoria Culp, is now a French teacher with the DSBN. She remembers Gay as an incredible human, both enthusiastic and motivating.
“He had this amazing way of making everyone feel at ease and welcome,” says Culp. “Everyone liked and respected him. I can remember playing saxophone solos with the jazz band, and no matter how nervous or uncertain I was with how good it was, Mr. Gay just got right into it and grooved along and clapped and cheered.”
In his last year at BDSS, he was assigned to teach Grade 9 applied English, she remembers. “Mr. Gay went through most of his life with an undiagnosed learning disability, and has great difficulty spelling, so teaching English seemed like quite a challenge. But with all
the Mr. Gay enthusiasm we knew and loved, he dove right in, and learned right along with the kids as he taught them.”
When he moved to Eden in 2006, it coincided with the start of high school for his oldest child, Stephen, now 28 years old. Jim has had the unique opportunity to teach all four of his own children (in addition to Stephen, there’s Mitch, 25, Lauren, 21 and Matthew, 19). They all studied music under their father, with the two youngest following in his footsteps with the saxophone.
At first, Gay’s timetable was split between Lakeport and Eden. When the former school closed, he got to work building up the instrumental program at the latter. It flourished under his direction.
Eden also offered Gay the chance to combine his focus on spiritual matters with his love of teaching music.
Jordan Duerrstein, a 2009 Eden grad now a minister at The Meeting House Waterloo, remembers Gay as an honest, humble, open and approachable teacher. A very talented musician himself, Duerrstien is still influenced by his music teacher today.
“Outside of the classroom,” says Duerrstein, “Jim was able to share his faith in really simple and clear ways.To be able to teach in a professional capacity, but to also be able to share who he was as a person of faith (during chapel) was something that was really cool to see.”
As Jim moves into retirement, he’ll be handing the reins of the music department off to Derek Stickney and Eric Mocchio. He is certain that they will work hard to continue to inspire students to excel through music education.
In the meantime, the Virgil resident will take a few more months to decompress, to hopefully travel, and to excitedly await the birth of his second grandchild in July.
Once gatherings larger than five are allowed by the Province, his former students will have plenty of chances to catch up with him around the region. About six years ago, he enlisted his son Stephen to play the drums for a new band that debuted for his and Chris’s 25th anniversary. Generation Train has given him a chance to work on his singing chops, while inspiring people to dance to songs from the 60s through the 90s.
And he’ll continue to accompany the Niagara Rhythm Section when bandleader Steve Goldberger calls. He also hopes to return to his Friday night James Gay & Friends gig at the OLiV Tasting Room at Strewn Winery.
As he says, “most of my professional career has been as a ‘gun for hire’ for various bands, or as a solo saxophonist in a dinner music kind of setting.”
Which takes him to where he had to be later in the afternoon he spoke to The Local: standing outside of Morse and Son Funeral Home, playing My Way as a horse-drawn carriage took a friend’s mother for her last ride through the streets of Niagara Falls.