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Jon-Michael Lasher, Connetquot schools music director, dies of brain cancer at 45

"People trusted him and they believed him when he said 'You can do this,'" said his wife, Susan. "That makes a big difference when someone believes in you."

Jon-Michael Lasher, 45, of Selden, died of brain

Jon-Michael Lasher, 45, of Selden, died of brain cancer on Monday. Photo Credit: Danielle Baker

The greatest hit that music teacher Jon-Michael Lasher played was not on his saxophone. It was in the way he treated people.

Many thought his playing style — warm and easy, just like him — could have taken him to concert stages, but Lasher instead used music to shape his students' lives, most recently as the director of music and fine arts for the Connetquot Central School District.

"I think a lot of people would tell you that their relationship with Jon-Michael Lasher was special because they felt like they were the most important person to him, and their issue was his own personal crusade," said Stephen D'Amico of Windermere, Florida, a friend since junior high school. "He wasn't just that great song. He was an anthem . . . across so many generations."

Lasher, 45, died Monday after a decade of living with brain cancer, from three surgeries to multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

District officials called him a "champion for music and fine arts education" with an "unmatched dedication" to his students and colleagues. 

When he was promoted in 2009 from band teacher at Connetquot High, his alma mater, to the music director, he was "100 percent" responsible for preserving and growing the program even as other districts slashed funding for such programs, said Gregory Johnson, director of the Connetquot High School band. Under him, the high school band and choir were tapped to perform in parades, competitions and holiday celebrations across the state and nation, including the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., he said.

Lasher saw music as a way of focusing young minds and allowing students to exercise different parts of the brain. "That was something he promoted and spoke to our central administrators about all the time," Johnson said. "He allowed us to pursue our dreams and backed us up as a staff to pursue these things for our kids."

Students competing in statewide or local music competitions would often see their teacher attending as a cheerleader.

A former student, Lauren Michaels of Oakdale, remembers looking forward to Lasher's visits when she was in middle school. “He was pretty much always there for you,” said Michaels, 19, a student at SUNY Oswego. “He would always put a smile on your face.”

Lasher, who grew up in Bohemia, began his studies at SUNY Potsdam, where he met his wife, Susan, and earned a bachelor's degree in music education. He got a master's degree in music performance from Duquesne University and a certificate in school district administration from Long Island University. From 1998 to 1999, he was the high school band teacher at Sewanhaka High School. He went on to be the band director at Newfield High School in the Middle Country Central School District before joining Connetquot schools in 2003.

But the year he was promoted to music director was also around the time he started showing neurological signs of what turned out to be a brain tumor, said Susan Lasher. 

Despite the diagnosis, the family refused to let the cancer take over their lives, she said. Instead, the family started spending some of their best moments together. They went on a three-day roller coaster vacation because Lasher was a big fan. They watched sports games in bed because Lasher was a massive Rangers and Mets fan.

They had "carpet picnics" at home and "hello tours" when Lasher insisted on going to work, albeit in a wheelchair pushed by his wife. In the audience at concerts, Lasher waved his hand as if he were conducting, his wife recalled.

A few years ago, he started the Tumor Tacklers to raise funds at the Long Island Brain Tumor walk, raising more than $30,000.

"This tumor is stubborn, but what we hoped would be an afterthought has turned into a new way of life," Lasher said as the invited speaker for the walk in 2016. "What I know now, that I didn't know seven years ago, was that I am far stronger than this tumor will ever be."

He told his doctor and nurse to "get another job" because the cure was going to be found.

In recent months, students, colleagues and friends began wearing gray ribbons, the symbol of brain cancer, at school concerts, and Johnson said they'll continue to do so at various music events.

His deep bond with students was evident by those who kept in touch with him for years, said Susan Lasher.

"Kids would message him, tell him what they were doing," she said. "He took so much pride in hearing who became a doctor, who became a lawyer, who became a teacher. When the kids would get married, he would love to see the pictures, especially when they had children. It made him feel old, but he stayed connected. 

"People trusted him and they believed him when he said ‘You can do this,’ ” she said. "That makes a big difference when someone believes in you."

Besides his wife, survivors include his daughter, Maggie, 16, and son, Thomas, 12; parents, John and Lucille Lasher of Bohemia; and siblings Laurie Tramuta of upstate Fredonia, Jacqueline Rizzuto of Bohemia and James Lasher of Hauppauge.

Visitation has been set for 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Bryant Funeral Home in East Setauket. Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Selden. Cremation will be private.

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