WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Redwood Elementary School Gymnasium was filled with song on Nov. 22, when students, staff and community members came together to celebrate the life of Joel Perry, who was the school’s vocal music teacher until he died suddenly in September, just before the start of the new school year. A 22-year veteran of the school, Perry was beloved by students and fellow teachers alike. Plans quickly came together to honor him and the staff found that the best way to do that was, of course, with music. Two sing-alongs were held — one for the younger students and one for the older — to honor Perry with his favorite music the day before Thanksgiving.
“We wanted to do something to show our appreciation for our co-worker and our friend,” Kimya Jackson, a second-grade teacher at Redwood and one of the event’s organizers, told the West Orange Chronicle at the tribute. “The best way to do that was with a concert.”
Jackson has been teaching at Redwood for 13 years, and said that the void that has been left by Perry’s passing has still not been filled.
“We would go see him perform, go to his shows,” Jackson said. “We’re definitely a family here; we don’t just come to work and go home. Everybody had something to contribute. Everybody was signing up to help out with this.”
Perry was a recipient of the New Jersey Association of Jazz Educators Jazz Education Achievement Award in 2017, and led the choruses and guitar club at Redwood. He was a seasoned jazz musician and guitarist, and played in the district’s faculty concert every year he worked there, according to fine arts supervisor Louis Quagliato. While his spirit is impossible to replace, new vocal music teacher Gary Margerum has been doing his best to carry on Perry’s legacy, he said.
“There are some big shoes to fill,” Margerum told the Chronicle at the event. “It’s an honor to be asked to be a part of it. I’m thinking about how I’m teaching and what I’m working on with the students, and trying to do it in honor of that person.”
To put the program together, Margerum took advice from the older students at Redwood, who were more likely to have had Perry as a teacher than students in the younger classes.
“I wanted to plan a program with new things, and old songs that he taught,” he said. “This is putting music into the community and something everyone can be a part of, and we can celebrate Joel.”
While a few tears were shed at the assembly, the sing-along was a lively celebration of Perry’s life, with school parents, Perry’s former colleagues and district administrators filling the rows of chairs behind the students in the gym.
“The two things that he really, really loved were playing music and teaching it,” fifth-grade teacher Gerald Powers said at the event. “And he got to do both. It’s fitting that we’re here to celebrate music.”
Perry’s impact on his students was evident when five Redwood alumni who are now in middle school set up their music stands and guitars to sing “Forever Young,” by Bob Dylan, one of Perry’s favorite artists. The Joel Perry Alumni Chorus, which formed specifically to perform at the assembly, received a standing ovation at both iterations of the tribute.
Perry’s family and close friends were at Redwood for the assembly, and appreciated the celebration of his life.
“Joel was about finding what was in your heart and living it,” his wife, Eve Meyerson Perry, told the Chronicle. “He was about positivity and ripple effects of kindness. He was always telling me, ‘enjoy your day today.’ He was a teacher, but he was always a learner.”
Perry’s daughter Elizabeth was also at the event. “He was the only teacher I knew who taught for 22 years and wrote new lesson plans every week,” she joked in an interview with the Chronicle. “Most people recycle them, but he never reused anything.”
Redwood PTA representative Shawna Roth presented the school with a memorial plaque to honor Perry that will be on display in the school’s front hall. Shaped like a guitar, the plaque is inscribed with one of Perry’s most common proclamations: “Everyone can sing!”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic