John Keon was expecting to see little ones in tutus when he arrived at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge on Sunday. That was the plan according to his wife, Lee, who ferried her husband there under the guise of attending a young friend's dance recital.
"Not a bad turnout," Keon remarked as he scanned the parking lot.
As Keon approached the auditorium, he heard the faint sound of a band playing Zoot Suit Riot.
"That sounds like my music," the Hudson Middle band director thought.
Then the door opened and the music washed over him, along with resounding applause
"About 200 of your closest friends have come out to honor your career today," said Mitchell High band director Joel Quina, as the band played on.
"Unbelievable," was all Keon could say, again and again.
If the movie Mr. Holland's Opus comes to mind, well, that's the point.
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In the Hudson community, Keon is an icon: a soft-spoken, patient and motivational teacher known for instilling confidence and poise in his students.
"He spent his entire career really helping students, and I think that's pretty amazing," said Mark Trojanowski, a former private student of Keon's who plays drums for the rock band Sister Hazel. "He pretty much lived and breathed teaching every day."
"He always made time, whether it's a student or a teacher," said Gulf Middle band director and alumni sax player, Dawane Ledbetter. "He shares what he knows, gives what he can."
Aside from his daily teaching gig, Keon's jazz band averages 60 community concerts a year, attracting about 250 people who support the band with applause and donations for travel. Tampa International Airport and Gulf View Square Mall are venues. The band has also garnered honors, playing competitions in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville and New York, where they performed twice for students at an elementary school located blocks from where the World Trade Center fell.
"I wanted to teach them about giving to others through music," Keon said. "But I also wanted them to see the world."
He emphasized the role of music in academics, proving his point at every concert by asking students who made the honor roll to stand up. Typically no one was left sitting down.
And while classroom lessons were a priority, Keon's life lessons linger.
"We were young kids going on all these trips, staying in these hotels, some of us for the first time," said alumni bass player Matt Mayberry. "That was an awesome, life-changing experience. But to this day, every time I go into an elevator and push that button, I can still hear Mr. Keon saying, 'Let the other people go out first.' "
• • •
Flanked by his wife and two daughters, Keon sat front-row center, still dazed by the attention and at times wiping tears.
"I was just blown away to see all these people who meant so much over the years," said Keon, who will retire in December after 41 years of teaching.
The Hudson Middle and Hudson High jazz bands took turns on stage, followed by a slide show put together by band mom Cindy Smith, and the presentation of a lifetime achievement award by Hudson Middle principal Terry Holback and district supervisor Rebecca Musselman. Then an alumni band brought together by Facebook played some signature tunes — Louie, Louie, Wood Choppers Ball and Tuxedo Junction.
Among the players were some familiar faces and others Keon had lost touch with: trumpeter Greg Cannella, who learned to play in Keon's elementary school band back in the 1970s and is now a principal at McDonald Elementary in Seffner, and James Justice, a former Hudson Middle student who is a band director at a school in Jacksonville.
National touring vocalist Sara DelBeato serenaded Keon with rich renditions of At Last and P.S. I Love You. Leading the alumni band was Mitchell's Quina, a former student who started taking percussion lessons when he was about 5. Topping it off was Keon joining in on drums for a rousing Rock Around the Clock.
The concert offered some well-deserved thanks to a teacher who made so many kids feel special, said alumni saxophonist Chelsea O'Keefe. "If every single teacher was like John Keon, we'd live in a perfect world."
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Keon was 13 and living in Farmingdale, N.Y., when he got the teaching bug. The tall, lanky kid had already won a statewide snare drum championship as a member of the local VFW Drum and Bugle Corps. Then he started helping players who were older than him.
"I knew then that teaching was going to be my career," he said.
Keon got his bachelor's in music education at State University of New York and his master's at Columbia. He married his high school sweetheart and served three years in the West Point Military Band during the Vietnam War before landing a teaching position in upstate New York.
During a visit to see his in-laws, who were living in New Port Richey, Keon fell in love with the area and began interviewing for teaching positions.
In 1975 he started teaching at Cypress Elementary and Anclote Elementary, marching some 200 students in local parades and for practice around New Port Richey.
"People would come out and set up lawn chairs on their front lawns and watch us," Keon said. "It was great."
After 14 years, Keon took a position at Pasco Middle, then left in 1990 to teach at Hudson Middle, where he has been ever since.
During that time, he and his wife raised two daughters.
Kristen, 34, is a Harvard graduate and an oncologist who teaches at the University of Ohio. Nicole, 38, graduated from MIT and went on to become an environmental engineer and now lives in California.
"Both are products of the Pasco schools," Keon said proudly, adding that come December he'll be spending more time with his daughters and three grandchildren.
And he'll continue to teach privately and travel the state as an adjudicator at solo and band evaluations, something he has been doing in his spare time for the last 20 years.
"A lot of people don't like it, but I love it," Keon said. "You've got 150 kids coming through doing solos. But to me, it's like a short, private lesson. You give them tips, show them how they can improve, how to be better."
In the meantime, he'll reflect on a tribute concert that offers inspiration for the 84 days he has left to teach.
"It was truly an honor," Keon said. "That's why you teach, because you know you're making a dent in someone's life. And for them to come back and tell you, well that's even better."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]