The power of music and a pioneering teacher’s special influence can be found in the Facebook remembrances of Booker T. Gibson, who died March 10 of natural causes at his North Merrick home. He was 85.
Thirty years after he retired as a music teacher in Valley Stream, many former students from across the country still recalled Gibson’s inspiring example. As one former student, now in Florida, wrote: “Truly an incredible, one of a kind human being ... I was blessed to be 1 of his students.”
Starting in 1956, Gibson taught music to generations of Valley Stream students, grades 7 through 12, with an infectious love of jazz, Broadway melodies and popular music. He also performed as a piano player on weekends at local clubs. “It’s so touching to see what’s been written about him by his old students,” said his wife, Frances.
During his early career, Gibson was a rare African-American teacher in the predominantly white Valley Stream district, and one of the few teaching music on Long Island. At Valley Street High School South in the 1960s, Gibson was “a living multicultural education, as a role model much different than all the others around us,” remembered another former student Lawrence C. Levy, a Hofstra University dean and former Newsday columnist. “He was a great music teacher, who exposed most of us for the first and perhaps only time in our lives to the classics and jazz.”
A graduate of Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore and SUNY Potsdam, Gibson first enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, playing the piano around the country before he set out to become a music teacher in the growing suburbs of Nassau County.
“When I was discharged in 1956 I thought it would be easy getting a teaching position, since they were building new schools all over Long Island,” Gibson later recalled. “Unfortunately, most school boards wouldn’t even talk to me, even after friends of mine who were music teachers started taking me around while I was still in my Air Force uniform.”
Gibson eventually landed a job in Valley Stream, where he taught all sorts of music to junior and high school students and led the high school chorus. He retired in 1986. Afterward, he kept playing the piano for crowds at the Southward Ho Country Club in Bay Shore and the Irish Coffee Pub in East Islip, where former students sometimes showed up to cheer him on. The high school’s class of 1965 later honored him with a scholarship in his name.
In addition to his wife, survivors include three sons, Brock of Syracuse, Joshua and Paul, both of Merrick.
A wake will held Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Carl C. Burnett Funeral Home, 456 S. Franklin St., Hempstead. A funeral service will take place Friday at 11 a.m. at Union Baptist Church, 24 Clinton C. Boone St., Hempstead. Burial will follow at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Pinelawn.