An unrelenting schedule much of the past few weeks brought her to the office a few minutes after 7 a.m. to meet individually with student singers. By day’s end, Janie Gordon found herself playing piano for a spring musical rehearsal for nearly three hours before heading back to the office to tie up loose ends.
One of those work days, she left for home just before 8 p.m. — and sounded positively cheery about it all. Yet, the Columbus North High School choral director since 1999 feels it’s time to sing a new song, or at least try a new verse or two.
Gordon will retire from public school teaching at the end of the school year and instead devote her time to providing private voice and piano lessons.
“I’ve been feeling this (need for change) for a couple years now,” said Gordon, sitting with a skinny vanilla latte, her second of the morning, in her school office filled with portraits of current and past students. “My schedule is completely driven by the bell. Sometimes I feel I should have a cot in here.”
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She laughed. She’s hardly complaining, however.
The 58-year-old educator loves her work and her “kids,” as she calls them, as much as ever.
It’s just that she now wants to make some of her own decisions on her own time so she can spend more time enjoying her family and grandchildren.
Gordon has battled through arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands after playing hours per day in her choral classes, followed by school rehearsals. But it seems she would feel more pain if she skipped such passions altogether.
Gordon began playing piano at age 8 and remembers a year later making up songs and singing in her family’s Columbus living room. Her first major role came as a youngster in a local Theatre Arts Guild production of “The Music Man” at the old Rio Theatre downtown. Her mom played in the pit orchestra.
That fire still burns.
“I feel I still have so much creativity in me,” she said.
Years ago, when she lived in Florida, she sang on cruise ships, worked as a nightclub performer and did the dinner theater circuit. She considered making all that and more a lifelong career. But she knew deep down she was, as she labels it, “old-fashioned” and longed for hearth and hometown.
As old-fashioned as she says she is, she makes room for modern ways. Take the fact that by the time many local students reach high school, they already have served in Mill Race Theatre Company musicals with Gordon. So, many of them have known her only as “Janie” since they were in kindergarten.
Consequently, transitioning to address her differently by the time they arrive at North has been too odd for some.
“I’ve told them, as long as you respect me in here, you don’t have to call me Mrs. Gordon,” she said.
Actually, many choral students affectionately call her “our choir mom,” given the fact that she spends so much time with them in the classroom and at weekend competitions.
North senior Sarah Pankratz said there “is no measurable way to describe everything she does here.”
But she takes a shot at identifying Gordon’s biggest contribution.
“You couldn’t possibly fake her overall devotion to our program,” Pankratz said.
David Clark, North’s principal, said one of his first thoughts that came to mind when Gordon told him of her intention to retire was, “No, you can’t.”
He added that it’s tough to summarize Gordon’s impact on countless students.
“In our choir department, she has embodied who we are,” Clark said. “After all these years, that’s who the students look like, sound like, walk like and talk like. And she has been such a role model.”
He mentioned that Gordon has been impressive in beyond-the-classroom roles such as school musicals and the annual American Pie rock music/history concert every spring. Plus, the administrator lauded her for being a trusted, personal confidante for young people finding their way through the challenges of the arts and through life.
“That’s been really invaluable for our students to have such a good place to go for things like that. Added to all that is the fact that her connections throughout the community run so deep,” he said.
In recent years, she has pulled back from some direct involvements, such as the Brown Music Competition.
“I just can’t do that anymore,” she said, laughing at herself. “I got to the point where I would take every breath with the singers.”
A few minutes later, she began a choral class as animated as ever, coaxing her charges to “stop being so technical and singing all geeky” and just let the music flow out of them. She told them to relax, but she kinetically served as a hilariously poor example, and caught herself.
“I’m sweating up here,” she said, “and I’m not even singing.”
Maybe because Janie Gordon is driven. By the bell. By the love of music.
By the love of students.
Role: Choral director since 1999 at Columbus North High School. She leads five choirs and one piano class.
Family: Husband Mark; son Chris and daughter Amy. One grandchild, and another expected in June.
Education: Bachelor of Music Education degree from Indiana University
Final spring choral concert: 7:30 p.m. April 26 at North’s Judson Erne Auditorium
In Music City: Show choir slated to perform a country set April 7 at the Grand Ole Opry before the main stage performance of the night. In past, North choirs have performed worldwide.