A few days ago, I found myself at an elementary school assembly. There was a young man, apparently the music teacher, leading a group of kindergarteners in a song about being an animal, if I recall. He was magnetic and enthusiastic and a tad flamboyant and he reminded me of my own grade school music teacher, Mr. Bradley.
Mr. Bradley was tall (at least he seemed tall at the time) and lean and silver-haired. He wore clogs and turtlenecks and was the most sophisticated person I’d ever known. He taught us songs in foreign languages (Frère Jacques) and songs about European landmarks (London Bridges) and he gave us, at an early age, a window into a world far away from our little Kansas farm town. He was the vocal teacher and orchestra teacher and since I sang in the choir and also played violin, he figured prominently in my grade school years. Like the young teacher I witnessed a few days ago, he was magnetic and enthusiastic and a tad flamboyant.
Mr. Bradley was the first gay person I ever knew, although I did not know it at the time. I remember in junior high, a classmate told me about how he’d once called Mr. Bradley a faggot to his face, bragged about it actually. I asked if Mr. Bradley was gay. He said, “Yes.” I asked how he knew and he told me his Dad who was also a teacher had told him.
When I was in high school, Mr. Bradley moved from Independence to somewhere in Texas. A few years later, I heard that Mr. Bradley had passed away. I’ve talked about formative teachers on my blog before and Mr. Bradley falls into that category. And of all my teachers from my hometown, he is the one I know the least about. In my adulthood, I’ve wondered why he taught in Independence when the call of the world was clearly beckoning to him. I’ve wondered if he had a great love or any loves at all. (I’d never heard talk about him having a boyfriend or partner.) I’ve wondered what prompted his move to Texas and if his final years were happy ones. I hope so.
I also wonder if he knew that I was going to grow up to be the (sometimes) magnetic, enthusiastic, tad flamboyant man I’ve grown up to me. Did he see something of himself in me? I know there are some people in the world that think gay people should not teach. There might be people who read my blog that think gay people should not teach. But I am very grateful that the Universe placed him in my educational path.
Mr. Bradley, I really wish you were alive today. I wish you could come visit me in Los Angeles and I’d take you to see Follies at the Ahmanson and jazz at LACMA and we’d walk the grounds of the Huntington Gardens. We’d get tickets to the L.A. Philharmonic and grab a drink at the revolving roof top lounge at Westin Bonaventure and as the world spins around us, I’d tell you how special of a teacher you were. I might confess to the school boy crush I’d had on you. You might tease me about how ridiculous I look in my man clogs and I’d tell you that it’s all your fault I wear the darned things. And then we’d laugh and order another round of Cosmopolitans. And when the check came you’d grab it and I’d steal it from your hand and say, “No, this is on me, I owe you.” And the fact is, even though I’ll never get to tell him that, I do owe him.
This is a wonderful story, thanks for sharing! I live in LA and I’m a huge music fan so I got wonderful imagery of these places. It also brought to mind one of my favorite movies, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. 🙂
Thank you, Ray, for reminding me of someone who made a big impact in my life as well. Bill Bradley was a longtime friend of my parents and the whole Hille family. He was from Chetopa, KS and, as a high school student, studied organ with my grandfather, Earle W. Hille. He went on to receive music degrees from Wichita State and Tulsa University. He was married briefly, long before I knew him, to a woman he met in Germany. My parents told me she was quite homesick when they moved to America, so it didn’t work out. No doubt there were other unspoken issues. He was an only child of older parents, most likely what drew him back to southeast Kansas. Bill and his mother (I believe his father passed away when Bill was in his twenties) were nearly always at our table for any holiday celebrations. They were simply members of our family. I also remember frequently driving to Chetopa for dinner at his mother’s home. His mother was very funny and Bill had her same quick, clever and terribly dry wit.
Bill started me and all three of my cousins on string instruments. Coincidentally?, three of the four of us are now professional musicians. He created our family quartet, much to the delight of my grandmothers who trotted us out for many a Garden Club or Presbyterian Women program. He often had our quartet meet at his apartment where he had a harpsichord as well as a treasure of exotic things from his travels. He left Independence for a better job and more fulfilling teaching position in Arlington, TX where they were more interested and supportive of his Orff and Kodaly music teaching methods. We still saw him every time he came to visit his mother, which was frequently, and also visited him a few times in Texas. According to his obituary, he also taught in Colorado, New Jersey, Japan and Germany. Somewhere in between the Germany and Japan experiences (I think), my parents bought his VW Beetle that he had shipped over from Germany. My mom drove that car for years until Joel Williams taught me to drive a stick shift and it became my high school car.
Bill died in August of 1999 from heart problems that had plagued the final few years of his life. He left behind his partner of 16 years, Larry Furr, also an organist and music teacher. You prompted me to dig out an envelope of Bill’s obituary and programs from his funeral in Dallas and memorial service in Chetopa that were in my dad’s things. Mostly I was searching because all I could think was “it wasn’t that long ago that Bill died”, so I had to find out when it was.
Printed in his funeral bulletin was a copy of Bill Bradley’s teaching philosophy. I’ll share it with you:
“People either become experts at doing the right thing, which is seen as a fine talent, or they become experts at doing something wrong and unacceptable, which is seen as a lack of talent,” so writes the famous Japanese violin teacher, Shinichi Suzuki. Be we music teachers or teachers of science, our responsibility must extend far beyond just the subject matter which we teach.
Where are we going in our lives and in what direction go our students? It seems important that we should look for truth, love, virtue and beauty in our lives. As teachers, we should exemplify this search; not only in our teaching and with those with whom we come in contact in our community but, especially, with our friends and family.
Since it is my belief that musical talent can be developed along with other talents in all children, the environment in which the child grows is of the utmost importance, an environment not just in the school, but in the family life and the community as a whole. As a music teacher, I am committed to creating an environment and atmosphere that will cause music to become an important part of the daily life in each child and to give each child the opportunity to enjoy music as a way to improve the quality of the life he is to lead.
If a person’s circumstances and environment effect and create his personality, his ability, his thinking and his feeling, then we have a responsibility to create the best kind of circumstance and environment for our young people whether we are teachers, parents or community leaders.
It is my desire to create such an interest in music that all my students will literally “fall in love” with music.
Ray, Thank you for indulging me in my remembrance of a great musician, teacher and friend. I go into tomorrow feeling a little more inspired in my own teaching simply by remembering one of my many musical influences.
Bridget, Thank you so much for sharing more about our beloved Mr. Bradley! You actually answered many questions I’d had for years.
My brother and I both ADORED Mr. Bradley! Thank you Ray and Bridget for the kindness and the information about him. I was quite young when he left (after second grade, 1980ish I think) but we were always delighted on the occasions that we saw him, typically around a holiday, dining at JT Maloney’s. He was always happy to speak to us. I will never forget the love of music he instilled in me. While we had other wonderful music teachers after him, Independence missed the boat when Mr. Bradley left.
We were so blessed to have him for a teacher and I always adored his clogs and everything else about him! He had a passion for teaching that was contagious and I still remember the full names of several famous composers because of him. Thanks for sharing this blog with me, Ray!