Metro-East News

Belleville East music teacher who was ‘mentor, encourager, and friend’ dies at 75

James McHaney
James McHaney

A longtime music educator at Belleville East High School died this week.

James McHaney, 75, of Belleville, died Wednesday at Evelyn’s Hospice House in Creve Coeur, Missouri.

Mr. McHaney, also called “Mac” by his students, was a music instructor who spent 31 years teaching hundreds of students at Belleville East. He retired in 1994 as head of the music department.

During his career, McHaney also acted as a coach and mentor. Some of the activities he led included Treble Choir, concert choir, show choir, women’s basketball and men’s golf.

His family issued the following statement: “On behalf of the McHaney family, we would like to express our sincere appreciation for the outpouring of admiration, love and respect we have received from his friends and former students whose lives he touched. During this difficult time, our family is comforted in hearing how much he meant to so many people. He will forever be known in our hearts as the quintessential ‘Music Man.’”

Jamie Windler, McHaney’s daughter, wrote this tribute on Facebook, “...God needed a phenomenal director to lead a choir of angels, so He called our dad as he is the perfect man for the job. ‘I Hear A Song,’ ‘I Believe,’ and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ are resounding in the halls of heaven.”

He had a lasting impact on many of his students. In fact, some former students created the “Mr. McHaney Fan Club” Facebook group to express their love and appreciation for their music teacher.

The description of the group is: “We all share a love for a fabulous teacher — Mr. James McHaney. He invested into each one of our lives and we will forever be grateful. We love you, Mac.”

Tami Wolfson, the administrator of the “Mr. McHaney Fan Club” Facebook group, shared her memories about McHaney.

He will forever be known in our hearts as the quintessential ‘Music Man.’

The family of James McHaney

Wolfson said, “Mr. McHaney wasn’t just a teacher — he was a mentor, an encourager, and friend. We knew we had someone to go to if we needed someone.”

She said his love for music was infectious. “I don’t remember being brow-beaten to learn it,” Wolfson said. “I just remember wanting to succeed for him.”

He pushed his students to perform music that may have seemed beyond their ability. Wolfson remembered singing Handel’s Messiah, a very difficult musical selection, in choir and described participating in it as “an honor.”

Right or wrong, sing it strong!

James McHaney

She remembered McHaney saying to his classes: “Right or wrong, sing it strong!”

Though she didn’t realize it then, Wolfson says this motto went far beyond singing advice. “He was instilling a motto for life,” she said.

A group of choir alumni will be singing at his funeral services. When former students were asked to join this ensemble, Wolfson said their response to the invitation was “overwhelming.”

“(He) was loved deeply by so many of us,” she said.

Jeff Dosier, superintendent of Belleville District 201, said McHaney was a teacher when he was in high school.

“He was a highly respected and well liked teacher for many years,” Dosier said. “I knew him as a great person and a wonderful teacher.”

Margery Handy, a speech therapist at Abraham Lincoln Elementary and singer, said, “Jim really helped me to find my voice. He really guided me towards using it to bring joy to others. He was definitely an inspiration my whole life, really.”

Handy recalled traveling with the swing choir under McHaney’s direction to West Frankfort and performing for the town. “That’s where his parents lived,” she said.

“That was an awesome memory — to meet his family and learn how much the town loved him,” Handy said. “Everyone knew him. He’s just a man who everyone loved.”

Cari Casper-Bassler, an art teacher at Belleville West, says she first met McHaney because her older sister was in the swing choir.

Casper-Bassler said, “When I was old enough to start at Belleville East, I could not wait to be in the choir. I couldn’t wait to be there because he was such a sweetheart.”

She said one of the reasons why she became a teacher because he was such an outstanding example of an educator.

“He loved music and he loved teaching. Putting those two things together was like magic,” said Casper-Bassler. “He was a role model for all teachers.”

In a Belleville News-Democrat story about McHaney’s retirement by Maureen Houston from March 18, 1994, many of his students from Belleville East expressed their love for him.

“He’s a friend,” said Leah Reichert. “He doesn’t tell me what to do. He gives me options.”

Terica Biermann said, “In grade school, teachers were talking about him. He’s one of the best high school music teachers around and one of the best teachers here.”

Jason Spriggs said, “He’s a role model for all of us. He believes in honesty 100 percent. If you can’t trust him, you can’t trust anyone. He’s a real awesome teacher.”

Luck is when dedication and preparation meet opportunity.

James McHaney

Melissa Back said, “He has one quote he says to us all the time. He always says when people say good luck, he doesn’t believe in it. ‘Luck is when dedication and preparation meet opportunity.’”

McHaney was quoted in the story as well. He said, “I’ve always felt that God gave some the ability to sing well and others didn’t get quite as much ability. But he gave us all one ability — the ability to try. That’s what I expect from my students, to try to do their best.”

Services for McHaney will be held at Union United Methodist Church, 721 E. Main St., Belleville.

The visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, and the funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Heidi Wiechert: 618-239-2500, @BND_HeidiW