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Musician Bob Dorough found his function

Bob Dorough of

Bob Dorough of "Schoolhouse Rock!" passed away earlier this week. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin Yatarola

Apologies to my elementary school teachers, but none of them taught me how to multiply.

And none of them taught me about the preamble to the Constitution, or the “powerful stuff” called electricity.

Bob Dorough did.

He was a man whose face and name I didn’t know until I was an adult. But I knew his voice, and he became one of my favorite teachers.

I knew that “Three is a magic number,” and I often had to sing my three-times tables backward, as Dorough did, rather than say them.

I only knew the word “conjunction” when paired with “junction.” And I loved Bill — and rooted for him to become a law every time.

Dorough, who died this week at age 94, was a jazz musician — a composer, singer and pianist. He was a music director for boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and wrote for Miles Davis. But he’s not as well-known for any of that. As the story goes, an advertising executive told Dorough that the executive’s son was able to memorize song lyrics, but not his multiplication tables. Dorough went to work — and “Three is a Magic Number” was the first result. Starting in 1973, the songs were animated and broadcast by ABC-TV as the Saturday-morning series “Schoolhouse Rock!”

That’s how Dorough became known to millions of kids and parents. Soon, he added fellow jazz musicians to his team. We heard their voices during romps through grammar and numbers, and, yes, how a bill becomes a law. (Dorough didn’t write or sing “I’m Just a Bill,” but, as part of his “Schoolhouse Rock!” anthology, he sang it in concert often over the years.)

“They didn’t know it, but they were getting educated,” he said of his young viewers.

Indeed, by the time my daughter was old enough to learn multiplication, her teachers were teaching math differently from how mine did. But Dorough was still there, available on YouTube. And he became her teacher, too.

His words and music are especially important now, when it seems civics, history and, too often, grammar get lost in a sea of social media sound bites. So, the “Schoolhouse Rock!” legacy will endure for as long as bills become laws and conjunctions are “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” Dorough will be best remembered as teacher of math and grammar and science and civics.

At least I hope and pray that he will.

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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