ST. PETERSBURG — Days, perhaps weeks, before a concert by his choral group, director Robert Anders found a way to slip into the venue and take a seat in the back. He imagined the Alumni Singers, the group he led for 30 years, performing African-American spirituals and a variety of other songs on stage.
In the dark, he could see the music taking shape.
Mr. Anders had a way of making visions come true. He taught or served as an administrator in Pinellas County public schools for 30 years, wielding authority with a gentle but firm hand that inspired loyalty from students.
In retirement, he and his wife, Barbara, also a career educator, co-founded Academy Prep Center in St. Petersburg, a private school targeting low-income students that has received high marks for its graduation rates.
Mr. Anders stayed at the helm of the renowned Alumni Singers, a group founded in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Gibbs High School, for 30 years. He told the group to present themselves as if they owned the stage, because they did.
"He wanted to make sure we had that warm inflection in our voices, like pouring milk from one container into another," said Carolyn Hobbs, 71, a founding choral group member.
Just before they sang in concert, he relaxed the singers with a broad smile.
"It was almost a comical smile," Hobbs said. "He would lift his eyes and show us his teeth — like, 'Let's go!' "
He spent most of his childhood in Jacksonville, harmonizing around the house with three brothers. He served in the Army and attended Florida A&M University. He majored in choral music and band, sang first tenor in a quartet, played tuba in the FAMU Marching 100 and repaired musical instruments.
"He could sing higher than the top sopranos," said Barbara Anders, 74, who met her future husband in college. "He made a game of outsinging the sopranos, just to egg them."
They married in 1958, the same year they moved to St. Petersburg. They started a family where children grew up hearing Mr. Anders playing jazz or hymns on the piano.
Mr. Anders taught music for seven years at then-Pinellas High School in Clearwater. He moved to Seminole Junior High, then served as dean of boys and assistant principal at Boca Ciega High.
He talked to the kids, who "didn't want to be on Mr. Anders' bad side," his wife said.
The Alumni Singers formed in 1980, mostly out of former Gibbs High students. The group grew in popularity, and soon had a waiting list to audition for one of 32 spots.
At rehearsals at the Enoch Davis Center, Mr. Anders stressed "interpretation, diction, music (and) terminology. Looking at the music with all that the composer had in mind and he had in mind," said 13-year member Henry Oliver, 76.
Mr. Anders spent the last nine years of his career as assistant principal at Lakewood High, retiring in 1992. His academic career took another twist in the mid 1990s, when hotelier Jeff Fortune and his wife were looking to start a private school. Its mission: help capable children who are performing below expectations in public schools.
Mr. Anders and Fortune visited the area's largest employers, explaining their vision for the privately funded Academy Prep Center. The school opened in 1997 with 13 boys.
Robert and Barbara Anders volunteered for the first five years at Academy Prep before parting ways. The school now has about 200 students on campuses in St. Petersburg and Tampa, and boasts higher graduation rates than Pinellas County students (87 to 77 percent).
The Alumni Singers continued to inspire audiences with music based in African-American traditions. Mr. Anders led the group until congestive heart failure and other health problems slowed him down. On days he could not conduct, he still showed up to offer encouragement and support.
Mr. Anders died Dec. 30. He was 77. His passion for music remains ingrained in the chorale's 32 members, including his widow.
Barbara Anders said she will remember "just the way he would have us hold the notes, (emphasize) the expression of the notes or cut the notes. Whenever he made a movement with his hands, something happened. We knew exactly what to do."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.