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The poet and wordsmith Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said music is the universal language of mankind. Dr. John Gerdy has been speaking and teaching that language his entire life.
“Creativity can be nurtured and developed. Everyone has creativity innately and involvement in music is something that encourages and fosters it. Music creates a safe environment to think outside the box. That’s why investment in music education is so important,” Gerdy says. “Further, in many ways, we’re less connected as a society. Thus, it’s increasingly important that we find things that bring us together. Music’s ability to build community is very powerful.”
Growing up in Little Falls, New Jersey, Gerdy was actively involved in sports. His father, a physics teacher, was the high school’s football coach and his siblings played sports. “Probably the biggest influence in my life was my mother,” he admits. She reminded him that while being an accomplished athlete was good, being a well-rounded person who is kind and giving was far more important. His mother encouraged him to play music, and he often tinkered on the household piano. He started taking guitar lessons his freshman year.
Gerdy became an all-state basketball player at Passaic Valley High School. He went on to receive all-American honors at Davidson College, graduating as the school’s all-time leading scorer—a record that remained unbroken until surpassed by Steph Curry some thirty years later. Gerdy’s jersey was retired in 1979 and the 6'5" player was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1994. He was drafted by the New Jersey Nets and played professionally in the Continental Basketball Association for one season. After earning a Masters in Sports Administration and a Ph.D. in Higher Education, he worked at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) before heading to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as Associate Commissioner for Compliance and Academic Affairs. “It was a very conservative, button-down, suit-and-tie position,” he says. The high- profile job filled his days, but his nights were given to his musical alter ego—Willie Marble, an “old school,” Delta Bluesman.
“When you assume another identity or persona, it gives you a lot of freedom to act in different ways, gives you license to explore things, explore sides of your personality that you normally don’t get to. And why only have one identity and persona when you can have two? It’s twice as much fun!” he says with a rogue smile.
Gerdy also served as a visiting professor in sports administration at Ohio University. But with the birth of his first child in 1995, he became a stay-at-home dad. He wrote about sports’ role in schools and society and continued to play music. After his children were grown, Gerdy started looking for his next gig. “I had this tremendous opportunity to reinvent myself. I could have gone back into college athletics, but, as a lifelong musician, I began to do the research about how music education and community music funds were being cut.” As a result, his appreciation for the value of music as an effective educational and community-building tool grew.
Gerdy founded Music for Everyone (MFE) in 2006. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to raising awareness and resources to strengthen the role music plays in local schools and communities. To date, MFE has awarded more than $1 million in grants, scholarships, and direct program support to schools and community arts groups in Lancaster County.
In 2009, MFE launched “Keys for the City” and distinguished Lancaster City as the “street piano capital of the world.” For the past six summers, anyone at any time could play and sing at pianos scattered throughout the City. Aside from complete accessibility, their beauty wasn’t just in their colorful designs, but in the sounds of magical musical moments happening all over the city.
In June of 2015, John spoke at a TEDx event in West Chester. His talk? “The Value of the Arts as a Community Investment.” His idea? As the world becomes increasingly complex, we need to address difficult issues and challenges with a higher, and more creative level of thinking (courtesy of Einstein). Music encourages and fosters that creativity and can build a more connected community. His example? Lancaster City.
Whether playing on the court or rocking on the stage, Gerdy promotes collaboration and community involvement. A prolific writer, his fifth book, titled Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment (2014), offers a return on investment analysis of football versus music programs in high schools, concluding that music’s educational return is significantly higher.
“Given the tools at our disposal in today’s world, the opportunity for an individual to take an idea or passion and develop it to a point where it can have real community impact have never been greater. You don’t have to change the world. But you can have an impact on your block, in your neighborhood, in your city. Find your passion. Follow it. Give it a shot. You never know where it might lead.”