DUNEDIN — Mary Jo Blair didn't know that when school ended Dec. 1, 2006, she wouldn't be back the next day. Or ever again as band director at Dunedin Highland Middle School.
Now the woman who directed the band for 18 years wants her students to know why. So, she has planned a reunion with a potential guest list of 4,000.
"I want to see my former band students," said Blair, who also thinks of the gathering as the retirement party she never had. "I won't turn anyone away. We'll move outside the Dunedin Community Center if everyone comes."
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Four years ago on Blair's 64th birthday, she left school knowing something was wrong. She just didn't know what.
For months, she had not been able to concentrate. She had stopped cooking, something she loved to do. And she couldn't muster energy to shop for new shoes, though her feet got wet when it rained because her soles had cracked. Life felt too hard.
"I had a hormonal imbalance and overactive thyroid that kept me from sleeping more than three hours a night," Blair said. "I was exhausted. My husband was home to take me to dinner and asked if I was all right. I said, 'No. I can't live like this anymore.' "
That night, her husband took her to Morton Plant Hospital, where a doctor Baker Acted her for three days because he feared she might harm herself, though she said she never had any such intentions.
She went on sick leave, then short-term disability as her doctor attempted to diagnose her problem. She retired in April 2007.
"I didn't know I wasn't coming back," Blair said. "I felt as if I'd abandoned my students and fell into a depression."
She continued to struggle with the illness, taking a variety of medicines and trying to get well. But then this year she experienced a breakthrough.
"On the way to my granddaughter's first birthday party, around the beginning of June, I was listening to Joyce Meyer CDs," she said of the bestselling author who's touted as one of the world's leading practical Bible teachers. "Until then, I hadn't been able to listen to music at all, not for four years.
"A few days later, I changed. It was a miracle from God. In an instant, my mind came back clear, clearer than it had been before I was sick. In the process of all that, he (God) healed my thyroid. I'm off all medicines now."
Blair says she has completely recovered.
She gets more rest these days but is full of ideas. Ways to support the Dunedin band. Plans for future reunions.
She also volunteers at Dunedin helping the current band director, David Mason, who was hired as her replacement in 2007.
"Mary Jo is great person, and I'm honored to follow her and direct these band students," said Mason, who plans to attend the reunion.
Also attending will be Bill Allen, 84, the middle school's first band director. Blair replaced Allen when he retired in 1988 after teaching for more than 33 years. Allen lives in Virginia and taught Blair and Mason as Dunedin students.
"Mary Jo has always been such a kind person, an angel working with the band," Bill Allen said from his home in Virginia. "When Mary Jo was sick, my wife and I traveled to visit her, but she didn't want to see us for more than a couple of minutes.
"I prayed she and John would someday have a normal life again. Then one day she called. I thought hearing her voice was nothing short of a miracle. I don't have the time or imagination to say what's in my heart, but I will have a joyous time at the reunion."
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A late 1950s black and white photograph on the band room wall shows Blair in her student band uniform. Photographs of her as a director are displayed, too. They document band trips to Washington, D.C., and New York at the Statue of Liberty.
"Four of my students went on to be band directors," said Blair, who moved to Dunedin 61 years ago at age 7. "One played at Carnegie Hall."
Word of mouth about the reunion spread. Blair gets daily phone calls, letters and e-mails.
"I believe you jump-started my success and so many students' (successes) at Dunedin Middle," Tatianna Pizzutto, a Florida State University pre-med student and former Dunedin band member, wrote to Blair via Facebook on Nov. 16.
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Today Blair has fun with her grandchildren, Tyler, 11 and Finley, 18 months. She enjoys time with John, her husband of 48 years, and thanks her son, Mark, her daughter, Barbara, and their families for all they've been through with her.
And Blair is back teaching private saxophone lessons.
"My youngest student is 11 and my oldest is 51," said Blair, who has played the saxophone since age 14.
"The band at Dunedin had been my life," Blair said. "I didn't want my school career to end that way. I developed close relationships with students over the years and this is my chance to reclaim the band family I've so missed."