Remembering a quiet hero: Keith Phinney

Today is a day to remember and to be thankful for the men and women who put their lives on the line to safeguard our country.   Returning from war zones to home these veterans return to their communities and resume their lives usually without fanfare.  So, I am pleased to share with you today about a quiet hero–Keith Phinney — and how he made a difference in my life.

I had no idea that he was so much more than my music teacher and choral director at Bedford High School.  In that role, Keith Phinney was a maestro:  he commanded the attention of even the “townies” who tried to goof off by standing in the back row.  He was amazing—he would conduct and reprimand all with the same hand, and we excelled as a Glee Club.

I loved to sing and Mr. Phinney cast me in the role of Peep-Bo, one of the three little maidens in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.  This was an extraordinary achievement and in retrospect I can see how courageous—maybe unconventional—Mr. Phinney was.  He choose me, a black girl, to play a key role, while outside the music room my color kept me from being a cheerleader and my gender prevented me from running track.

I must admit that as a teenager I viewed teachers as teachers—not as individuals with rich sets of experiences that shape their teaching styles.  At the time, our knowledge was limited to married vs. not married, lives in Bedford vs. some other place.   We knew that Mr. Phinney was married and had children but what I didn’t know until I attended his memorial service on April 17 is that that I—we—were the beneficiaries of his exemplary service as a B-17 bomber pilot in the United States Army Air Corps during WWII.  I learned from his son Keith’s eulogy that Mr. Phinney completed over 25 sorties during the war.  That takes courage, discipline and focus.  Now I understand how he was able to command our attention and keep us in order.

His memorial mervice at the Congregational Church in Chelmsford included beautiful music, of course, and the gathering of his close-knit family.  Oh the stories his son shared!   And it ended with a formal presentation of the American flag on behalf of the President of the United States to his wife Elizabeth for his service to our country.  As the sound of “Taps” filled the air, I had a richer appreciation of Keith Phinney the man, and I am so thankful for the opportunity that he gave me:  to sing my song. I am not alone in my sentiment

Melinda Lopez, BHS ’82, is an award-winning playwright whose work was cited by President Obama in a recent speech. “Mr. Phinney  — he was never, ever Keith — was a remarkable man. A superstar, European in his manners, and precise in his teaching, he was all glamour. His posture, his attitude, his speech– he was like a character out of a 1930s Hollywood movie, and I adored him,” she recalled. “He was a great teacher, and inspired me to believe that a career making music, theatre and beauty in the world was possible.”

Melinda continued. “He didn’t stand for fooling around when it came to making beautiful music. He demanded respect for the art form, and he taught us to do the same.”

As Stephen Lord, another of Mr. Phinney’s students and now one of four conductors in the Opera News “25 Most Powerful” pantheon, shared, “He made a difference.”

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