By Mike Rosenberg
The larger-than-life teacher who put music on the map for two generations of Bedford High School students died this week at age 91.
Keith Phinney, who resided in Chelmsford, was director of music for the Bedford Public Schools from 1953 until his retirement in 1988.
Music has been a central ingredient of a K-12 education in Bedford for decades — and that’s Mr. Phinney’s legacy, through his hires, his advocacy, teaching style and innovation.
He delivered a musical education to thousands of Bedford young people. A few of them were inspired to continue careers in the performing arts, some with accolades.
Brian Sutherland, a 1976 graduate, has acted on and off Broadway for more than 30 years, sometimes with his wife Diane. Mr. Phinney, Brian said, “was formative in giving me the confidence to get on stage and put myself in front of people. He was my first real vocal teacher.. He gave me as big a push as you can get from anybody.” Brian remembered when Mr. Phinney visited him immediately following a Boston performance. That meeting was “a momentous occasion for me.”
Melinda Lopez, BHS ’82, is an award-winning playwright whose work was cited by Presdient 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.”
Following several years of acting, Peter Galipeau, Class of 1984, is on the theatre faculty of the State University of New York at Orange. Mr. Phinney :”made me really want to be in this field — he is the reason why.” Mr. Phinney, who was a bomber pilot during World War II, “taught respect for the arts — the same thing I teach my students. Once you knew him, you realized he was something special. He touched so many lives.”
The most visible component of the Phinney legacy at Bedford High is the annual musical. The production of Cinderella last month was the 55th. Mr. Phinney directed the first 27.
In a 2013 interview, Mr. Phinney said he decided to stage a high school musical because of his personal experience as a performer at the South Shore Music Circus and the North Shore Music Theater. He also had some experience with the genre at Melrose High School, where he began his teaching career.
The first Bedford production, in 1962, was Sweethearts. Mr. Phinney collaborated with William Toland, director of instrumental music. That pair became synonymous with BHS musicals for a quarter century. “We were part of an amazing music program,” Peter Galipeau said. “I am honored and privileged to have been mentored by those two guys.”
The second production was Calamity Jane, and the 1964 selection of The Mikado was the first to be repeated – 18 years later. The 1981 production of Annie Get Your Gun included several varsity soccer players in the cast and some football players on the crew. “One thing I learned back then is everyone is working together to make the show succeed,” Geoff Spofford recalled in 2013.
Sheila McCravy, BHS ’87, participated in the musical throughout high school, and she recalled in 2013 that the respect Mr. Phinney commanded “had a profound impact on my life. He taught me to accept my limitations, embrace my strengths and move forward.”
Phinney, impeccable in a tuxedo, would accept compliments in the lobby after each show.
A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, April 17, at 1 p.m. at Central Congregational Church, 1 Worthen St., Chelmsford. The Patrons of Music Students (POMS) organization named its annual senior vocal award for Mr. Phinney, and the family is asking that memorial donations be directed there.