Marian administrators, teachers, current and former students – and even some of their parents – came together May 19 to celebrate the retirement of Marian’s beloved band and choral director, Tom Rome.
Rome, who became the first full-time faculty member in the music department in the fall of 1986, defined the position, laying the groundwork for those who will follow him.
“I wanted to go while I still really love it,” said Rome, who would often comment that he never felt he had a job or went to work, so rewarding was his time with students.
The love that Rome felt for the Marian community returned to him in refrains and choruses at the recent Saturday event.
“He was the best part of Marian,” said former student Kathryn Valle Pedersen (Class of 2005). Pedersen, a participant in choir, the musicals, and Madrigals, now teaches at Woodstock North High School. When Rome traveled to North each year with students from the McHenry County Honor Band, he would find Pedersen’s classroom to stop by and say hello.
At the retirement celebration, Pedersen looked around at all the alumni wearing name tags.
“We probably didn’t need these name tags,” she said. “He remembers all of us.”
Kristi DeWispelaere, a Marian Spanish teacher and longtime co-director of the spring musical, needed a few moments to compose herself before she could talk about her “amigo,” whom she dubbed the “heart and soul” of Marian. The two began working together, along with English teacher Judy Sowinski, in the spring of 1996 to put on “Oklahoma!”
DeWispelaere laughed as she recalled the 2005 production of “Cinderella.” A mouse got into the auditorium and ran from one side of the theater to the other before doubling back and skittering in front of the pit orchestra. “He [Rome] never stopped conducting,” she marveled.
The celebration was the culmination of months of planning once Rome’s retirement was announced. Alumnae Megan Harrison Schmidt (2009) and Alex Callahan Pacton (2002) handled the organizational end with assistance from two current students, junior Molly Sullivan and senior Nick Calliendo. Marian’s Assistant Director of Development, Kaitlin Thompson, and Assistant Principal Cheryl Loy saw to the administrative details.
Loy told Rome that he was going to a “meet and greet.” Rome privately questioned the three-hour timeframe and thought, “Nobody will come.” When he arrived, he was escorted to the auditorium, where he thought there might be a slideshow. “And then I walked in and saw the kids on stage,” he said.
Alunma Therese Narusis Hartz (2011) directed current and former choir members for one of Rome’s favorite pieces,“Seasons of Love,” from the musical “Rent.” Rome’s successor, Andy McKay, took the baton to conduct current and former band members in a medley of “Star Trek” themes to honor Rome’s well-known Trekkie devotion. Those on stage joined together to sing Marian’s fight song.
Participants wore “Class of Mr. Rome” T-shirts with Dr. Spock’s last words to Captain Kirk in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” emblazoned on the backs: “I have been and shall always be your friend.”
The group then moved from the auditorium across the hallway, where Rome wept as the new name of Marian’s music room was unveiled: the Tom Rome Conservatory.
Accepted the challenge
Two days after the celebration, Rome sat down with The Independent to reflect on the past 32 years. While Marian has since 1996 boasted a spacious and comfortable auditorium and a music room Rome called “gorgeous,” conditions were quite different in the early years of his career.
Rome came to Marian after 11 years at Harrison Elementary School, where he taught band, second- and third-grade physical education, and eighth-grade woodworking. Rome even acquired a bus driver’s license so he could transport his students to Parkland School, which had the shop equipment.
His first impression of Marian as then-Superintendent Tom Landers showed him around was not a good one. The music room was “a disaster.” On a chalkboard in the hallway outside the room, students had drawn a series of headstones. On each was the name of a part-time band and choir director, who had all departed at the earliest opportunity for a full-time job.
Landers understood that the music program needed a full-time presence to have a respectable choir and band. He hired Rome to take over the program, filling out his schedule with afternoons as a band teacher at St. Mary and Montini elementary schools and as a Sunday pitchman for Marian at the religious education classes in the county’s Catholic parishes.
“I like a challenge,” Rome said, and he encountered a number of them. The school’s musical instruments were in sorry shape. At the first concert, the drum set fell apart. Rome halted the concert, reassembled the drum set, then resumed the performance.
Laura Yegge Henkel (1988), who played flute, was one of only a half-dozen members of the pit orchestra when the school staged “Funny Girl.” The orchestra was so small that Rome had to pick up his trumpet and play with his students to fill out the sound.
Henkel remembers that the pit orchestra had to wait for sports teams to finish practice in the original gym with its small stage. Band members would move in all the equipment and instruments for rehearsal for the musical and then move it all back out before the next day’s gym classes.
“Now there’s a beautiful wing with an auditorium,” Henkel said. “You get an idea of what he’s done for Marian.”
In retirement, Rome will devote time to his interests and hobbies. He looks forward to going to Chicago to see the symphony or an opera matinee without worrying about getting high-schoolers back on the bus.
He would like to attend daily Mass more often and put in more volunteer hours at Helping Paws. Having played in community orchestras in Burlington, Racine, and Elkhorn, Wisconsin, he might go back to playing the trumpet for a community group.
Rome bought a scroll saw a couple of years ago and plans to experiment with intarsia to create wooden mosaics. He is creating a new Baptismal font for St. Patrick’s Church in Hartland, where he has already contributed a hymn signboard and statues of Mary and Joseph.
Looking back, Rome appreciates the students whose lives he has touched.
“In some small way,” he said, “I hope I have made a contribution to their lives. I hope they keep music in their lives and think of me once in a while.”