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Choir director nears final curtain

Jerry Skora remembers directing musicals when people thought Carpenters songs were too risque for a high school performance.

"When I first started with my show groups, the hot and wild things were the Carpenters. "Why do birds suddenly appear . . . ' " he sings. "That was far-out then."

Now, the longtime choir director at Gaither High School is retiring and preparing for his final performances.

At this year's shows, there won't be any easy-listening songs with birds. Instead, students perform a rap number and a Janet Jackson song.

"You gotta change with the style and what the times are," said Skora, who has taught at Gaither since it opened in 1984. "A couple years ago, some kids came to me and said they wanted to do a rap number. We brought the house down."

Skora, 58, has taught in the Hillsborough school system for 37 years and has directed his choirs at more than 2,500 shows.

He began at age 22 at Ybor Elementary, then at West Tampa Junior High, Adams Junior High, East Bay High and 15 years at Hillsborough High (Skora's alma mater, Class of '57).

After all these years, he said, he still loves it. But enough is enough. "My whole life has been schedules and bells. I think I'm just ready to throw my watch away and wake up when I want to."

After today, Skora has one more show. May 21, his top choir group, Showcase, will perform.

At a rehearsal for this week's shows, Skora prepares the students for solos and full-cast productions of show tunes.

All the songs are about money or business _ from Madonna's Material Girl to If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof.

To get the 70 students' attention, Skora blows into a silver whistle. Then, a series of orders:

"Give her a note! . . . I want it rubato. Slooooow . . . I want everyone to be perfectly still, feet apart, eyes on the Exit sign behind me."

The students follow his orders, without grumbling. They speak of him with adoration.

"Once he leaves, any other teacher can never take his place," said Tanya Ketchum, a senior who has studied with Skora for three years. "We don't just sit up there and sing hymns. We have fun."

When Skora announced his retirement, senior Laura French couldn't hold in her emotions. "Oh, my gosh, I bawled," French said. "He's been a big part of my life. I feel so lucky I got to spend my high school (years) with him."

At the rehearsal, the students practice the show's finale _ an intricate dance routine set to Janet Jackson's The Best Things in Life Are Free. Skora reminds them to enjoy themselves.

"Remember, we're supposed to look like we're having a good time. This is not a physics test or the SAT."

Watching them practice the dance for the third, fourth, fifth time, Skora taps his feet and claps his hands, grinning and singing some of the lyrics.

He looks like he's having a good time.

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