Long before FOX’s hit show “Glee” and Universal’s show-choir comedy “Pitch Perfect,” Pat Kelly was making waves at Stonewall Jackson High School with her very own show choir: the VIPs.
Almost 40 years after leaving the halls of Stonewall, Kelly’s VIPs can enthusiastically recall the lessons she taught, the examples she set and the impacts she made on their lives.
To thank Kelly for her eight years spent as the school’s choir director and music teacher, her former students have organized a night of thanks on Aug. 30 at the Fifth Quarter Restaurant on Clendenin Street from 6 p.m.-11 p.m.
The reunion is not only open to students who participated in the VIPs show choir, but also to students who participated in Kelly’s other choral groups including an all-girl’s choir and a co-ed choir. Eddie Prather, former VIP member, said members of the VIPs who participated after Kelly’s tenure have also been invited to attend as well.
Prather encouraged all attendees of the reunion to bring photos and old yearbooks to the event as they reminisce about their time spent with Kelly in the music room.
Born and raised in Charleston, Kelly graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School, now Stonewall Jackson Middle School, and received a Bachelor’s of Science in music education from Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston. She later received a master’s degree in music from Marshall University.
After spending five years in Florida, Kelly returned to Stonewall with an innovative idea for a more contemporary singing group.
“It wasn’t a show choir when I took it over. I had done [a show choir] in Florida when I taught in West Palm Beach.” In her first year at Stonewall, Kelly replaced the madrigal singing group, which performed vocal composition of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras, with the VIPs show choir.
“It was more up to date [and] that’s what people were doing around the United States. They were developing show choirs, I guess, to compete with TV. You had to have a show, not a concert ... . We would perform show tunes, but with choreography.”
And entertain they did. In true ‘70s fashion, the group’s 17 members wore groovy, new outfits every year that were hand-made by VIP members’ family and friends. Former VIP member Bruce Arthur, now employee of the city of Charleston, fondly recalled the big hair, bell bottoms and platform shoes the VIPs wore.
“We wore navy-blue, bell-bottom, knit pants, red and white striped long sleeve bloused shirts [and] white patent leather boots. I remember we wore navy blue platform shoes one season,” Arthur said.
When they weren’t rehearsing or performing across the Charleston area, Kelly and her students were working to raise enough money to afford international trips to perform in various festivals.
“When we were working to go on our trips, you name it and we sold it,” Kelly said. “These things were not funded [by the school].”
Kelly and her students raised enough to visit Holland to perform in the Tulip Festival at Katwijk ann Zee in the Netherlands. She also organized a trip to Mexico City, Mexico, during which the group was able to stay at the ’68 Olympic Village. Kelly said a few other noteworthy performances her VIPs gave were at The Greenbrier and at the state Capitol for West Virginia Day and for a naturalization ceremony.
The majority of Kelly’s students hadn’t traveled much outside of West Virginia, let alone outside of the U.S.
“It was the first and only time I have flown to Europe,” Alan Pennington, former VIP and local real estate agent, said. “It was such a valuable experience. It was absolutely wonderful. It was in April and we toured tulip industry. I still have a poster framed from the [Tulip] Festival.”
Arthur recalled a spur-of-the-moment performance for people sitting in first class on the 747 airplane the students took to Europe.
Kelly and David Stern, then-choir director for South Charleston, are also credited for creating Swing Sing, a show that continues yearly to this day and brings together the best choirs from Kanawha County.
“We had the first Swing Sing. It was at United Fuel Gas Company back in 1970,” Kelly said.
Kelly and Pat Edwards, an English, public speaking and theater teacher at Stonewall, also teamed up to produce multiple musicals at Stonewall every school year. When they weren’t putting on plays, Edwards was assisting Kelly with the show choir’s choreography.
“She asked me to help with the choreography for some of the shows and competitive performances.”
Edwards added, “She respects the people that she works with for the talents that they can offer. She surrounds herself with the people who can actually contribute a great deal to the entire project and utilize that to its fullest. She was easy to work with.”
Edwards fondly recalled Kelly’s innovativeness, even when it came to her style of dress.
“One of the things that I remember about her ... is in the ‘70s [female] teachers were not allowed to wear pants. She is the first [female] teacher I remember wearing a pant suit to school. I think it just shows that she was pretty fearless. If she felt that this was right, she didn’t care to lead the way.”
Arthur said Kelly showed her dedication to her students even out of the classroom. He said he would often go to Sid’s, a greasy restaurant and pool hall that used to be located on the West Side, when he felt like skipping class.
“Probably at least a half a dozen times she had to come off the hill and drag me out of Sid’s,” Arthur said. “Mrs. Kelly was absolutely the most dedicated teacher that I have ever had.”
Edwards added, “If she thought it was the right thing to do, by gosh she went after it.”
Pennington said Kelly always expected the singing group to put in their best effort. “We had rehearsals all of the time ... . She expected you to come as a professional. She expected you to be on time and to not act up.”
Doug Calderwood, former VIP and now a local paralegal, said even when he did act up in her class, she always showed him patience.
“Being the teenage boy I was, I gave her all kinds on grief. Looking back she was patient with a lot out of us ... . She was upbeat. She always smiled. She always got a lot out of her students.”
Now retired and living in Daytona Beach, Florida, Kelly said she hasn’t seen many of her former students since they graduated from Stonewall.
“It’s 40 years later and those kids, which meant so much to me, still want to come and be a part of this reunion. It really makes you feel fantastic ... . They were a special time in my life,” Kelly said.
Prather, owner of Minor Prophet music studio in Indiana, said Kelly’s teachings greatly influenced his decision to pursue music as a career. He said, “Every person that went through the VIP’s carries her with them wherever they go.”
When asked why he and Prather decided to organize this reunion for Kelly, Calderwood said simply, “She deserves it.”
Those interested in attending the reunion can email Eddie Prather at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prather said if former students of Pat Kelly are unable to attend the event, but would like to show their appreciation they can email letters to the above email address or mail them to Eddie Prather 7401 E 200 N Avon, IN 46123.
Reach Anna Patrick at email@example.com or 304-348-5100.