For The Republic
In body, Lesley “Les” Gilkey lived a long time.
But his spirit, music and the impact he made on many young students in Seymour will continue long after his 102 years.
Gilkey passed away Thursday. He had just celebrated his 102nd birthday June 23.
He volunteered at Seymour Middle School daily for nearly 30 years assisting band students with learning how to read music and play their instruments. He also spent time repairing and tuning those instruments when needed.
He was just one month shy of his 100th birthday when he retired in 2015.
Former Seymour Middle School student Jeremy Brewer, who now lives in Texas, said he was saddened by the news of Gilkey’s passing and remembers him fondly.
“In sixth grade, we tried three instruments to see which one we would play. Mr. Gilkey heard me on the trumpet mouthpiece first, and he said, ‘You’re a trumpet player’ as soon as he heard me,” Brewer said. “I told him I really wanted to play saxophone, and then he stared at me in silence, his eyes boring into the depths of my being with a chilling and bewitching authority that captivated my attention.
“He said something like, ‘Do you want to make a bad choice and waste your talent or do you want to take my advice and be a great trumpet player?’” Brewer said. “Six years later, I went to college, trumpet scholarship in hand. I can’t count the hours that man poured into my life and our community.”
In 2012, Seymour honored Gilkey with a special concert and started the Leslie Gilkey Music Fund in his honor at the Community Foundation of Jackson County. The fund helps pay instrument rental fees for students who wouldn’t be able to participate in band otherwise.
Over the years, Gilkey helped pay those fees out of his own pocket so students could stay in band. He had even purchased instruments for students in need, former SMS Principal Doug McClure said.
Former student Maggie Goodpaster Fox kept a promise she made to Gilkey years ago.
“He gave me my violin, which I still play today,” she said. “His only request was that I kept playing.”
Teacher Monica Kriete recalled taking voice lessons from Gilkey for many years.
“He was kind and patient and expected no less than your very best,” she said. “He always picked songs that challenged me, and I appreciated that. We could spend an hour on a few measures. We worked on it until it was perfect.”
There’s not a moment now when Kriete sings that she doesn’t think of something Gilkey taught her, she said.
“I will dearly miss him,” she said.
Music had flowed through Gilkey since his earliest years, when he showed a strong interest in learning to play a variety of instruments, including piano, clarinet, trumpet and violin.
It was in high school in Crawfordsville where he learned to play string bass and was a cornet soloist. He also served as the student director of the band and orchestra his junior and senior years.
He graduated from DePauw University in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in music composition. While in a church music class, he met the love of his life, Ruth Fox. The two were married July 31, 1938, in Seymour.
The couple moved to Elwood, where Les took a job as supervisor of music with Elwood School System. He also served as the choir director at First Methodist Church in Elwood.
In 1941, they moved to Bloomington so Les could pursue his master’s degree in music composition at Indiana University. He worked as a graduate assistant to the professor of music education and received his degree in 1942.
He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II from 1943 to 1945. He was assigned to the Band Division of the Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes Training Center.
After the birth of their children, Thomas and Sandra, and the completion of his military service, the Gilkeys moved to Waukegan, Illinois, where Les began a 28-year career as the director of music at Waukegan High School. He served as music department chairman for 14 years before retiring.
In July 1979, Les and Ruth became Seymour residents. She passed away Aug. 6, 1986. After her death, Les continued giving piano lessons to some of her advanced students until they went off to college.
From 1986 to 1995, Les was a member of the Columbus City Band, for which he wrote music and directed until the age of 80. Also in 1986, he began helping Seymour Community Schools students at the request of band director Steve McGrew.
He was honored by the Indiana State Music Teachers Association as the 1997-98 Outstanding Hoosier Musician.
Former Seymour High School band member Natalie Hinton Jennings said Gilkey was a man she respected and who inspired her to be a better musician.
“He would have already been in his 80s then,” she said. “He would come to tutor band students during solo/ensemble competitions, and God help your soul if you hadn’t practiced enough before your turn with him. He had more energy at 80 than I’ll ever have in my whole life.”