When your principal calls you at 8:00 PM on a Friday night in the summer to ask for your father’s phone number, you know it’s probably not good news. Like many of my colleagues, I was shocked and saddened to learn of Jack Hontz’s sudden passing yesterday. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family today.
Over the coming days, we will hear countless testimonies of Jack’s contribution to the Strath Haven music community. The staggering numbers of students qualifying for PMEA all-region and all-state, as well as the numerous music teachers and band leaders he inspired over the years speaks to the strength of the music department he built. I want to approach his legacy from a different angle though.
At Strath Haven, we take pride in our students success in the three A’s – Academics, Arts, and Athletics. Jack Hontz was an integral part of melding these branches together.
Academics are an obvious priority in all schools, but the cultural divide between music and athletics, often portrayed in clichè movies, usually begins with the faculty. The demands teachers and coaches place on athletes and musicians often force students to choose between the two once they reach high school. While Hollywood exaggerates this divide at times, I attended a high school where the band boosters and football boosters were bitter rivals. The day before our big Thanksgiving game my senior year, the rivalry spilled over into the classroom when a classmate said to me, “Pat, you’re a nice guy, but I really hope you lose tomorrow because of the boosters.”
Strath Haven is very different, and Mr. Hontz deserves credit for this difference. Jack built a structure and a culture where students never had to choose between sports and music. The band and band front is always stocked with soccer, field hockey, and volleyball players. I have friends who still are shocked at the idea that some of our football players have stayed on the field at halftime to perform with the band as well. This worked in large part because of Jack’s own love of sports. He’s the only band director I know that also served as a Little League baseball commissioner on the side.
I remember from elementary school of how Jack became one of my father’s first friends when he came to Strath Haven from Archbishop Carroll. The two stumbled into each other at an Arby’s before the first game of the season, and sat down together. The two would meet every week for a pre-game dinner for over ten years. While the pre-game ritual faded away for a number of reasons, but Jack would still come down to my dad’s office to talk frequently about our team and other Philly sports. As a kid, I thought the film Mr. Holland’s Opus fictionalized the real friendship between my dad and Mr. Hontz.
When I arrived after teaching at Penn Wood, he was one of the first people to greet me with a smile as well, and welcome me into the Strath Haven family. Any time our paths crossed in the hallway, we both stopped what we were doing or forgot about where we were going to talk for a little bit.
I quickly understood why Strath Haven alums I met in college spoke with him with such reverence. Despite his booming, intimidating voice in the stadium, he was always very warm and empathetic when speaking one on one.
It’s common to hear educators talk about a holistic education, but bureaucracy often places barriers on this concept. Holistic education only works when educators are willing to offer flexibility in order to maximize student opportunities. Jack Hontz taught the language of music to thousands of students who would have otherwise been cast aside due to scheduling conflicts.
When teaching freshman Western Civilization (which I’m returning to this year!), I get to talk about one of the most fascinating periods of history, which yields an expression I consider among the highest compliments. Not only was Jack Hontz a Renaissance man himself, he empowered others to also live Renaissance lives as well. I hope this legacy and vision lives on at Strath Haven decades beyond Mr. Hontz’s service.
It’s going to be tough to hear “Kiss Him Goodbye” this season, but I know our football team’s number one fan will be expecting to hear it early and often.
We’ll miss you Jack.