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Maureen McGrath Jenness dead; longtime music director was 67

Maureen McGrath Jenness, 67, of Huntington Bay, was

Maureen McGrath Jenness, 67, of Huntington Bay, was the longtime music director at Walt Whitman High School in the South Huntington school district. Credit: The Jenness family

Maureen McGrath arrived at Walt Whitman High School in 1964 as a freshman transfer student, with the school year well underway, and answered the orchestra’s call for a bassoonist.

It was there — on her very first day — that she met the man she later was to marry, Thornton Weeks Jenness II, playing alongside him in the pit for the musical “Oklahoma!” From the same pit, she conducted student musicians as the school’s orchestra program director during a career spanning nearly four decades.

Maureen McGrath Jenness, who died Dec. 26 of cancer at 67, was remembered by relatives and colleagues as a passionate instructor of the complex language of music and the architect of the school’s orchestra program.

“Music was the heartbeat of her life,” said her daughter, Sarah Austin Jenness, 38, of Brooklyn.

Jenness was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and grew up in Dover, New Jersey, and Fayetteville, New York, before her family moved to Huntington in 1964.

She graduated from Ithaca College in 1971 with a degree in music education and an offer to teach in Rhode Island. A few days before her move, the New England-bound Jenness encountered a former teacher from the South Huntington school district, who suggested she apply for an open position back home.

She won the job and spent several years teaching in the district’s middle schools until she was called up to Walt Whitman High.

There, she laid the groundwork for the district’s award-winning music program. Her students won top state prizes and played in such venues as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Virginia Beach. She threw chamber music parties and barbecues at her home in Huntington Bay. To afford the out-of-state trips, she set up concerts in Heckscher State Park.

“Everybody adored her,” said Michael Holub of Louisville, Kentucky, a violist who is a former student.

“She was a tremendous musical and educational talent,” said James Polansky, a former principal of Walt Whitman High who now is superintendent of the Huntington school district.

Jenness’ gifts extended to bringing out the talent in students who were tentative about their skills.

“She was not only a master at teaching them skills, but she was a master at building their confidence,” Polansky said.

Thornton Jenness recalled meeting his future wife when he was playing tenor saxophone for “Oklahoma!” They were friends first and began dating as juniors in college. She, in upstate Ithaca, while he attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

“She was trying to help people realize that just about everybody has musical qualities inside of them if they just got in touch with them and allowed them to come to the surface,” he said.

For years, the couple’s two children attended their mother’s concerts, watching in awe in school auditoriums.

“The lights would go down and out would come our mother. She would stand on her conductor’s block, and her baton would come out, and she would lead her students. It was almost magical,” Sarah Austin Jenness recalled.

Cameron Jenness, her 34-year-old son, said, “She instilled that practice makes perfect” as well as that “commitment to music or anything is something you need to put in for, because nothing is free.”

Sarah Austin Jenness said the family is in the process establishing a scholarship in her honor at Walt Whitman High, to be awarded to a graduating orchestral student from Walt Whitman High.

Maureen McGrath Jenness retired from the district in 2007. The next year, she was inducted into Walt Whitman High School’s inaugural “Hall of Fame.”

A funeral Mass will be offered Saturday at the Church of St. Patrick in Huntington. A burial service is scheduled for the spring.

In addition to her husband and children, she is survived by her mother, Harriet McGrath, and sister, Sharon McGrath Gardner, both of Frenchtown, New Jersey, and two grandchildren.

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