TAMPA — Gwen's School of Music stands in a modest peach-colored building that was once a house on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, across from Memorial Park Cemetery. For the last 35 years, it has offered neighborhood youths a place to learn how to sing, play an instrument or compose music.
Gwen's has produced two choirs, the Inspirational Singers and the Inner City Boys Choir, which have performed widely in Tampa and beyond. Some former graduates went on to earn music degrees in college. A few teach music.
That is all as Gwendolyn McCree, a career music teacher in Hillsborough County Schools, had hoped. Ms. McCree, known as "Ms. Gwen" to students who saw her as an extended family member, died Sept. 27 at St. Joseph's Hospital after complications from surgery.
She was 71.
"Gwen's School of Music was a haven, sort of like a refuge for the inner city kids," said Cheryl Copeland, a former student who learned piano from Ms. McCree as an 11-year-old and now teaches music for Pinellas County schools. "She gave them the opportunity and hope to see that they could make something out of themselves in the arts."
The atmosphere at the school, near Tampa's College Hill area, is spare and homey, its small rooms stocked with musical instruments and desks.
A kitchen refrigerator stands ready with pizza and sodas to tide over young people who often stay hours after their lessons have ended, during which time they are expected to complete unfinished homework or hold devotional meetings.
Patrick Jackson, 12, has been coming to Gwen's since he was 3 years old — about as long as he can remember. The school, where he sings and plays keyboards, has helped him deal with a couple of challenges, including the death of his father four years ago.
Patrick, who takes music courses at Orange Grove Middle Magnet, has cerebral palsy. He smiled when he talked about Ms. Gwen, who checked on him during multiple surgeries.
"When I sing, it feels so good," Patrick said in a clear voice that in recent months has dropped an octave. "It feels uplifting. She told us to serve the Lord. She taught so many life lessons."
Ms. McCree has charged the same $100 monthly fee since 1976, when she opened the school in a two-bedroom house. She has passed up opportunities to move closer to downtown, where she could have charged higher fees, said Jackie Davis, 69, her sister, a retired school administrator and key figure at Gwen's School of Music.
"She could have been wealthy," Davis said. "But she gave away much more than she had."
A sign in one of the practice room warns, "Tuition due regardless of attendance," but Ms. Gwen always cut parents some slack if they could not pay.
She did insist, however, on collecting hugs when a child arrived. "She would say, 'I know you didn't pass by without giving me my hug,'" Patrick said.
She was born in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a Missionary Baptist pastor. At an early age she played piano and clarinet. She graduated from Gibbs High School and Florida A&M University before joining the Hillsborough County school system. She married and had three children but later divorced.
Ms. McCree also wrote some of the choral music for the Inspirational Singers, a group she started.
"We were the hottest youth singing group in the area for 13 or 14 years," said Copeland, 46, who sang in it. She started the Inner City Boys Choir in the late 1990s out of Shore Elementary, not long before her retirement from the school system.
"I want those little inner city boys from the Tampa Bay area to spread all of the good, all of the responsible acts that they know," Ms. McCree said in an interview several years ago.
She rarely had discipline problems because the children wanted to be there, her sister said.
Ms. McCree continued to teach until September, despite having suffered a stroke five years ago.
Former singers sang at her service Oct. 1 at St. John's Progressive Baptist Church.
"I just started crying," Davis said. "I thought, 'If Gwen could see you all.'"
The school will remain open, she vowed.