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Remembering Eleanor Stanlis in the future

March 10, 2010

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

Eleanor Stanlis was the founder of the Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra, Rockford College Music Academy and the first accredited Suzuki Method music teacher in this country. She was the wife of my mentor and friend, Dr. Peter J. Stanlis.

I didn’t know her that long in the relativity of time, 12 years; but for those years, she was the other half, plus, of Dr. Stanlis, whom I met at Rockford College, when Dr. Enam Karim asked students in an advanced grammar course to volunteer to set up Dr. Stanlis’ collections of Robert Frost photos. He shot and gathered them during a 23-year friendship with the poet, and after 1963 until the time we met about 1988. I was the only student to raise his hand in Dr. Karim’s class to volunteer; and by so doing, raised the quality of my life.

When I went to the Stanlis’ living room to compile an oral history on the photos, Eleanor was very gracious through the many interviews, sometimes buffering my lack of knowledge, “Doc’s” according grumpiness, and all the violin students and staff  coming and going.

As I graduated, went on with learning, and purchased this paper, our friendships grew, and I would continue to receive an “education by conversation” in classical music,  the arts and Frost from Eleanor and Doc together.

It helped that I liked Debussy and Revel and had a limited knowledge of the history of music from coursework at Rock Valley in the ’70s. My  sister’s college roommate, Akiko “Rabbit” Tanaka, had also given me a love of classical music, as had my mother in the 1960s. Rabbit, who ate huge salads, called me “Skunk” because of the mode of my childhood behavior.

Doc was of the same mindset as Rabbit about Eleanor’s and my discovery of our common affection for cigarettes and gin martinis, before or after dinner. He would “hurrrmph” his disapproval and go off and read or watch sports, while Eleanor and I sipped and smoked. So prim, proper, professional, and driven in her Music Academy world, she obviously liked teasing him with these small misbehaviors. We’d have two each, maximum. Then, Doc would come back and talk, or I’d go off to explore more serious misbehavior  elsewhere, with their stern, and head-shaking admonitions.

The behavior, welfare and achievement of children was a driving concern for Eleanor. “You can do better,” she constantly told me and many others. Although I and others disappointed her more than once, she always held out her hand and held up her high standards. She was unrelenting and not one to irritate in that regard. Her belief in the arts was her all-consuming passion, which she presented with grace and a soft or sharp brace of humor.

She did not find the Rockford Public Schools a laughing matter; and as former head of the Rockford College English Department, neither did Doc. She and Doc pushed me to publish many articles about arts, which I did and do to the benefit of my continuing education.

After much coordination by Eleanor, in the fourth issue of this paper, September 1993, we were still a monthly, I printed “Four Rs… Arts offer solutions.” Although my byline was on the editorial, Eleanor had provided much of the mental content. In fact, we announced the formation of a civic group. To Eleanor’s credit, the ideas still stand today. The following is what we presented:

“Studies in South Carolina, New Mexico, California and Tennessee and Japan show students involved in the Arts testing higher in standard tests, such as the SATs, and in IQ or creativity exams.

“Erick Oddleifson, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum, Inc., states that the Arts ‘awaken a passion for learning; they enhance pupils’ self-esteem, improve teacher relations and parental involvement; they reduce the need for disciplinary actions and lower suspension/dropout rates; they maintain high daily attendance; and they re-energize teachers. Above all, they increase the quality of personal performance at all levels, and they foster mutual respect among students.’

“The Arts are not for ‘weirdos’ and ‘eggheads’; the Arts are practical and offer solutions.

“The Arts can bring the immensity of the world to a classroom anywhere, something which is increasingly necessary in our shrinking world being brought about by economics and technology.

“The members of the Arts Education Coalition are convinced of the benefits of the Arts and would like to see them extended to our school system as a basic solution to many of our current problems.

“The steering committee: Members of the Coalition are: Colleen Holmbeck, Joseph Guzzardo, Eileen Michaely, Ellen Roseberg, Barbara Simon, Barbara Jo McLaughlin, Frank Schier, Mel Lundgren, Mary Phillips, Carmen Pursley, Ruth Siegfried, Nate Martin, Ronnie Latin, Martha Frantz, Eleanor Stanlis, and Steve Larsen.” That was 1993.

The editorial went on to invite the community to attend an Arts in Education seminar by the internationally-known educator Robert Culver at Rockford College. Later, the coalition organized a performance at Roosevelt Academy by students of Dorothy Paige-Turner and the Rockford College Music Academy, including Shelby Latin to try to persuade the District 205 School Supertindent Ronald Epps to implement an arts-based curriculum. He did not.

This Friday, at Court Street United Methodist Church, 7:30 p.m., the legacy of Eleanor will be celebrated along with 125 years of the Mendelssohn Club, with wonderful performances by Eleanor’s students, all coordinated by her extensively-trained successor, Marti Frantz. Eleanor will be proud. As we all watch these performances and remember Eleanor and the heritage of 125 years, let us consider what arts education could do for our children today.

If you even start to think like Eleanor, you’ll start planning, and you’ll act. I look forward to helping, hearing and printing anyone who carries forward Eleanor Stanlis’ vision. I’ll see you this Friday night and in the bright future of our education in Eleanor’s Arts. For those who believe in the power of the Arts, I quit cigarettes on Christmas Eve, but I might have a martini with you. Eleanor will be there.

From the Mar. 10-16, 2010 issue

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