Music man: Jackson teacher honored by state organization

Friday, February 9, 2007
Nick Leist showed his affection for the trombone at Shivelbine's Music, where the retired music educator works part-time by calling on area band directors. (Fred Lynch)

The name Nick Leist is a sacred term in the Jackson music department. Nine years after his retirement from the district, the man who taught band in Jackson for 30 years has a godlike status in the halls of the district's acclaimed music program.

"Every once in a while we'll say something like 'Mr. Leist started this way of teaching' or 'We played this song when he was here,'" said Scott Vangilder, one of Jackson's current band directors and one of Leist's former students.

"All of our kids say, 'Who's that?' and we tell them, 'This is the guy that just carried this program where it is today, and we just try to keep going'."

Leist helped churn out scores of musicians and music educators in his 30 years at Jackson. He helped make the district's music program one that is recognized for its quality around the state. And anyone who mentions Leist and his professional life has only glowing praise for the man who started the "team teaching" concept the school still uses today.

Ask any of them about Leist, and you'll get nothing but glowing praise.

"He's the nicest person in the world, and he is so genuine," Vangilder said. "He cares about everybody, and just watching him teach us as band kids in school, he had such a love for the music and the kids."

So none of Leist's many friends was surprised when he was selected in January to the Hall of Fame of the Missouri Music Educators Association, a not-for-profit group of music educators around the state. Leist joins only one other Southeast Missouri educator selected for the honor since it began in 1985 -- Dr. Robert Gifford, who was selected last year.

Kurt Bauche, immediate past president of the MMEA and band instructor at Farmington High School, said in most cases the honor has been given posthumously.

Even two weeks after he accepted the award at the MMEA state conference, Leist's humility shows when he discusses the honor.

He remembers reading the case that was made for his nomination and thinking "Surely they were talking about someone else."

Those who know Leist know his humility as one of the defining characteristics of his personality.

"He's very humble, and he doesn't consider himself special or great or anything of the sort," said Pat Schwent, who taught beside Leist for years. "I would tell him many times, 'Nick, you don't have a clue. You're like a magnet, and you don't have a clue. These kids gravitate toward you like a magnet.'

"Kids were truly important to him. He has a kind and loving personality that's not put on, it's genuine."

Leist won't take credit for his accomplishments -- like 27 years of No. 1 ratings (the highest possible) in contest with the Jackson High School Band, his average of 35 to 50 All District Band members each year, his 1994 Otto Dingeldein award or his 1996 Phi Beta Mu award for being the best band director in the state.

No, Leist gives all the credit to the Jackson community, the school district and his colleagues instead.

"I would attribute ... any success we've had to about three or four different things," Leist said. "First ... I was lucky enough to work in a community like Jackson, where music is a very important part of the lives of the community. With community support like that, you can't go wrong."

One of the key arguments Leist's supporters made for his acceptance to the MMEA hall was his innovation of the "team teaching" concept in Jackson. Under the system, the district's several music teachers aren't split between grade levels, instead they all teach music students from middle school through their high school graduation. And even though Leist's colleagues credit him with the concept, Leist is careful to use the word "we" when he talks about innovating team teaching.

The credit for team teaching, to hear Leist tell it, goes to the school administration. And the credit for his own success as a teacher he gives to others.

"I was so blessed to have a teaching partner like Pat Schwent," Leist said. "I always used to say about Pat, she could teach a stump to play a horn. She's one of the finest teachers I've ever met."

There was no hierarchy in team teaching. "We were all of equal authority," Leist said.

Dr. Robert Gifford, who nominated Leist to the hall, said the nomination was a no-brainer, even if it wasn't so obvious to Leist himself.

"Nick is known all over our state as one of the leaders in music education," Gifford said. "And typical of Nick, he wouldn't take the credit."

But Jackson -- and Advance, Hayti and Caruthersville, where he briefly taught prior to Jackson -- almost missed out on Leist. It was the intervention of LeRoy Mason, a former music educator at Jackson and at Southeast Missouri State University, that persuaded Leist to try out music education before starting his performing career. In those days (Leist got his bachelor's degree in 1962) Leist was a low brass player who thought he'd rather shine on stage than influence youngsters to love music.

"Once I started teaching, I wanted to be a performer no more," Leist said.

Every morning for 36 years Leist says he loved waking up and facing a new day as a teacher. That enthusiasm rubbed off on many students like Vangilder, whose relationship with Leist is like the one Leist had with Mason.

"He's the one that lit the fire," Vangilder said. "I came from a musical family ... but Nick was the first big influence as far as a teacher that made me think I would like to do this one day."

Leist put in many long days in the name of making students better musicians. When he was done at school, he'd go home to a wife who taught choir and three daughters who played instruments -- daughters that are passing the love of music on to Leist's grandchildren.

Music is and always has been his life, Leist says.

Today the retired teacher continues to affect young people by working as a representative and clinician with Shivelbine's. But in Jackson, he'll always be known as "the" band teacher, and one of the best there ever was, not just for his skill, but for his personality.

"His sincere love of people was why he was the master of band teachers in Southeast Missouri," Schwent said.

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