As a seventh-grader in 1965, Jan Willey was involved in Brownstown Central Community School Corp.’s first musical, “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
Twelve years later, in her second year as a music teacher at Brownstown, Willey directed her first production, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
This year’s musical was “Cinderella.” It also was Willey’s curtain call after 40 years of teaching.
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As the school celebrates 50 years of musicals — Willey has been a student or teacher for 45 of them — she decided it was time to retire.
“It has gone fast. It has been great. It has been a lot of fun,” she said. “I’ve just seen a lot of kids go through and a lot of talent. Oh my, a lot of talent.”
Organizing musicals has been a year-round job for Willey. From January to March each year, rehearsals were four nights a week and a few hours on Saturdays, and Willey often found herself working a couple of hours on Sundays.
Plus, during the week, she also had her classes throughout the school day.
“You get tired, and every show I did, I’m like, ‘Oh man, I just don’t know if I can keep doing this.’ Doing these musicals, it just wears you out. People don’t realize the work,” she said.
“I just felt like it was time, and I have two grandchildren,” she added. “I just want to do stuff now that I want to do, which whatever that’s going to be, I don’t know.”
Willey became involved in musicals as a seventh-grader because at that time organized sports weren’t offered for girls.
“I just loved being in shows and performing. It’s just a different experience up there on the stage,” she said. “I was in band. I was in choir. That’s what we did. That was our life, and my older sister was in all that, too.”
After graduating from high school in 1970, Willey went to Oakland City University for a year so she could find out what she wanted to pursue. She remained involved in music.
During spring break, a couple of classmates decided to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with their parents to check out Oral Roberts University, and Willey went along. She auditioned for the music department, got accepted and received a scholarship.
“I came back home and told my parents, and they said, ‘Just what did you do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Oklahoma,’” she said.
Willey became involved in all of the choirs and musicals. Oral Roberts also had its own religious television show, and Willey was in the choir that did backup singing for it.
She also received an opportunity to do backup singing for Kenny Rogers, who was just beginning his country music career.
“We did that for a week, and it was so much fun,” she said. “But we didn’t have anything to go by. All we had was a track of him singing, and we had to make up the vocals. I don’t know whatever happened to the recording, but you got paid great.”
During spring break of her senior year in 1975, she came home to Brownstown. She found out the elementary school was looking for a music teacher, so she went for an interview, was offered the job, accepted it and began teaching in the fall.
The next school year, Willey added a music class at the high school to her schedule. In 1985, she stepped away from teaching at the elementary and focused her attention on the middle and high schools.
All musicals were on the middle school stage until 2001, when the auditorium opened at the high school. That made a big difference because, at the middle school, there was one bar to hang a backdrop. There was no fixed seating, sound echoed, and they had to work rehearsals around basketball games and practices in the gym.
In the early years of musicals, Willey said some shows were repeated because they were limited to what they could do on the gym stage. But since shows moved to the auditorium, they have been different every year.
For each musical, Willey signed a contract, paid for the rights and ordered backdrops. The cost depends on the facility you have, number of nights of the show and how many people are expected to attend. Ticket sales help fund the next year’s show.
Then she began thinking about the set, costumes and auditions. Some set items could be stored away and reused later or sold to other schools doing the same production.
Some shows required around 50 students, and auditions were open to anyone in the school.
When she began teaching, Willey said the only way kids could learn about their part in the show was listening to a recording of it. But for the past several years, Willey has taken the cast to see the production at area theaters.
“Then they see how it’s all put together. If I have it cast, then they see their part,” she said. “Last school year, I took them to five different shows.”
Willey said she has always liked seeing the musicals come together.
“The first week of rehearsals is just rough. It’s so rough because they don’t know what they are doing, and they have no clue,” she said. “And then to see them progress to where it ends up, it’s amazing.”
The community also has been a big supporter of the musicals, Willey said.
One thing that helped attendance this year was offering a Cinderella tea party for younger kids a few weeks before the show.
“That generated gobs of people, and they had never been in this facility, and they go, ‘This is what goes on?’ and they learn about that,” Willey said. “Now that people know about all this, they are very supportive. They may not have kids in it. They just like to come. And if you do good shows, they will come.”
Willey also stayed busy throughout the year preparing for four choir concerts at the middle and high schools. The choir sings at graduation, too.
Willey and her students attended weeklong choir camps in the summer. After going to Indiana University and Indiana State University for the first few years, Willey found out about Showchoir Camps of America in Tiffin, Ohio, and has gone there ever since.
Psi Iota Xi sorority in Brownstown pays for the students to go to the camp, where they work with professional singers and choreographers and do a show at the end of the week. Teachers see what their kids do and come home with a booklet of music to use for shows.
“I figure out the whole school year by going to that camp, and it’s well worth it,” Willey said.
Willey’s replacement has yet to be announced. She said she hopes that person keeps the foundation of music going because it’s important to the kids.
“That’s just an outlet for so many kids,” she said. “Sports is great, and that gets those kids. But how many kids can be on a team? Whereas I had 45 kids involved in a musical. They’ve got to keep it going, keep something for these kids to do.”
After her retirement, Willey said she is looking forward to spending some of her free time at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. The seniors involved in “Cinderella” gave her a season pass as a retirement gift.
“I’m going to go because how often do you have evenings free to go?” she said. “And next season is supposed to be wonderful.”
Tribune readers were asked to share their thoughts about Jan Willey and her retirement from Brownstown Central Community School Corp. after 40 years as choral director. Here’s what they had to say.
“Great lady. What a dedication she has given to BCHS. We will miss her enthusiasm, her spirit and her kindness. Best wishes, Jan.”
Karen Acker, co-worker at Brownstown Central High School
“Jan was a great friend and neighbor in high school. She was/is so talented. I loved, loved hearing her sing. So proud of all of her accomplishments. Happy retirement, Jan.”
Linda Pollert of Seymour
“Congrats on your retirement. I loved being in the choir and the musicals. They were some of my best memories of high school. It was made so enjoyable because of Mrs. Willey. What an awesome talent and genuinely nice person. She always had a smile for everyone. She taught me that music should be felt and played with expression, not just read the notes. Thanks for being a part of BCHS. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Mary Benedict, Vallonia native who now lives in Brighton, Michigan
“Her passion for musicals was something that really set her apart. She loved doing what she did, and it really showed every practice and every performance. That same passion was in the choir room. She put her heart into everything we did, and we loved her all the more for it. She taught me, in her own way, that family isn’t only those you are born and raised by; family is the people who genuinely care about you as a person and support you. They may not always agree with you, but they still care about you. There was another lesson that went hand in hand with this one — make memories when you can, and don’t be afraid to do something you aren’t sure of. Musical was all about memories. Rehearsals, night practices, after-show get togethers, cast parties and family — that was musical. And without Mrs. Willey, there wouldn’t have been that same sense of togetherness. Thank you so much, Mrs. Willey, for all that you’ve done. It was a blessing and an honor to be your student.”
Zach Williams, 2013 BCHS graduate who is a student at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, majoring in computer engineering technology and information technology and minoring in electrical engineering technology and computer science
Name: Jan Willey
Education: Brownstown Central High School (1970); Oral Roberts University, bachelor’s degree in music education (1975); Indiana State University, master’s degree in music education (1979)
Occupation: Choral director at Brownstown Central Community School Corp. (elementary 1975-85, high school 1976-present, middle school 1985-present)
Family: Husband, David Willey; son, James Willey; daughter-in-law, Beth Willey; grandchildren, Jennie Willey, 7, and Lela Willey, 3