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At 90, Williamsville music teacher wraps up career on a high note

“One – two – I want to feel your pulse,” Roy W. Clare tells his room full of seventh-graders who have their hands above African culture drums, pounding out the beat.

“That part wasn’t good,” he says bluntly, after their first try. A firm look toward one side of the room and a quick “I don’t want your comments,” cuts off a buzz that threatens to get out of hand while he sits on a stool next to an overhead projector in the front of the class.

The Heim Middle School students give it another go. “That was better,” replies Clare, who winds in vocabulary – “tentative” and “duration” – into his discussion of half-quarter notes.

These are the last students Clare will teach.

The 90-year-old chorus director and music teacher will retire at the end of the school year, after 57 years teaching middle schoolers.

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Photo Gallery: Music teacher Roy Clare takes final bow

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Why now, when he’s still in good health and still enjoys the job? Former Williamsville Superintendent Howard Smith told him several years ago he would know when it would be the right time to retire. Today, he feels it in his gut.

“There’s a feeling,” said Clare, who possesses more than a half century of institutional knowledge. “Retirement to me is a feeling. You’ll know when it’s time. I have had all of the components in place for years. When it’s time to pull the plug, it’s time to pull the plug, you just feel it.”

Clare has a seventh-grade homeroom, teaches two fifth-grade music classes and seven seventh-grade music classes. He also directs the seventh- and eighth-grade choir, some of the estimated 12,000 students who have called him Dr. Clare over the years.

The typical middle schooler, 10 through 14 years old, is fun, he said. But, he added, “there are certain days you could thumbtack every one of them to the bulletin board because their behavior’s so bad.”

But children, he said, have not changed.

“They’re still children,” he said. “Once in a while you’ll see somebody skipping down the hall. Now, there’s no running. But if I see somebody skipping and there’s nobody around, I don’t interfere. It’s a child being a child.”

Clare joined the Williamsville Central School District in 1957. He has worked at Mill and Casey middle schools, as well as the former North Forest Junior High, which eventually became Heim Middle. A graduate of Otterbein University in Ohio, he earned his master’s degree at Northwestern University in Illinois, and his doctorate, with a major in music school education, from the University of Buffalo.

He jokes that he’s been in seventh grade for 57 years, and his friends say “What’s surprising about that?”

“He always told us to love what you do. He constantly said how much he loves teaching and working with kids and loves music,” said Principal Jeff Jachlewski, who was surprised when Clare told him he was retiring. “That enjoyment he gets for being here, that keeps him going.”

Clare and his wife, a retired teacher, have two children and two grandchildren. The Clares live near Heim Middle and sometimes get summer visits from former students. High schoolers and graduates have been known to drop into the middle school to say hello, and sometimes he sees former students when their children show up in his class. He thought this might be the year he taught a student’s grandchild, but that did not happen.

“My first students are turning 70,” Clare noted with a smile.

Many at the school can’t imagine coming back in the fall and not seeing Clare holding a rehearsal before school, preparing students for music festivals or directing the chorus during concerts. Sometimes he goes into the auditorium and plays the piano on a free period.

“He has a passion beyond anyone else,” said Cindy Orlando, an attendance aide who has worked at the school for 12 years.

Her husband, Michael, had Clare as a teacher, and their three children all had him.

“The kids still love him,” she said.

Lily Mattson, 12, is the third in her family to take music from Clare, and cried when she heard he was retiring. Her brother, Noah, 15, had him, and Clare also taught her mother, Jill in the 1980s.

“He hasn’t changed a whole lot,” Jill Mattson said. “He’s still funny, he still cracks jokes.”

Despite being the oldest teacher in the school, the spry man who walks briskly down the halls, wearing sneakers, brown slacks and plaid shirt, embraces technology. He used to play audio recordings for his students, and now they can watch a YouTube video of a performance, he said.

This week, a fifth-grader was talking about a contrabass clarinet, and he showed Clare a photo of it on his iPad. The teacher took that connection with the student and ran with it.

Out went the lesson plan, because the class had a new and better focus. He told everyone in the class to get on their iPads and look for contrabass clarinets so they could see them too.

“Now to me, that’s a connection between where I am, and what they’re going to do, because I want them to know thus and so and I’m going to get there through ways they already know,” he said.

He calls himself a subversive, because while students are taking music class, he’s teaching math, science, history and critical thinking. And when he gets stuck on the computer, he’ll ask a student for help.

“I’m smart enough to know I don’t know and they do, so they teach me, which I think is great. Just because I’m the adult, that doesn’t mean I know everything,” he said, adding with a laugh, “The older I get, the more I know about less.”

He was the organist and choirmaster at Buffalo Central Presbyterian Church, and has played organs throughout Western New York and Europe. When he retires, he will expand his longtime part-time business buying and selling antiquarian books. His specialty is books from the 15th to 17th centuries.

But will he miss being in school?

“I suppose there would have to be an element of sadness. If there weren’t, I would, No. 1, be surprised and, No. 2, I would be disappointed, because then it wouldn’t have meant what it has meant to me,” he said.

He feels for people who don’t have enthusiasm for what is their life’s work.

“I’m as excited now as I was 57 years ago, and I think that’s why I lasted 57 years, because if you’re not excited about what you do, it’s no good,” he said.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com