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Music Man

George Rico















Music Man

George Rico (GMu55) has devoted his life to teaching high school students the wonders of music.

A poster of opera singer Sasha Gerritson — one of George Rico's favorite students at Chicago's Lane Technical High School — hangs prominently on a wall in his appealingly cluttered office.

But the veteran music teacher remembers others fondly, too. There's John Herrera, who starred in Evita when it opened in Chicago, and Adrian Zmed, who performed in Grease 2 and the television series T.J. Hooker.

At age 81 Rico (GMu55) is one of the oldest on the Chicago Public School system's staff. He's seen countless students come and go, but he doesn't intend to end his 51-year teaching career any time soon. After more than three decades as head choral teacher at Lane Tech, he is now an assistant choir director, helping new teachers polish their techniques. "I thought I could help people learn music and be one of the best music teachers in the high schools," Rico says. "If I haven't accomplished that, I've come close to it."

His students aren't the only ones who have benefited from his contagious love of music. Many of his four children, 17 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren are accomplished musicians. One son followed Rico's example and became a high school music teacher.

Rico, a resident of Oak Park, Ill., emigrated from Mexico to Chicago a month before his fifth birthday. Although his parents weren't particularly musical, his sister and two brothers filled their house with the sounds of music. He joined them by taking piano and voice lessons. When he was 13, Rico organized and directed his first group, a harmonica band.

During World War II he served in the 69th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and saw action in the critical Battle of the Bulge, the last of the German offensives. The devastation he witnessed there made him even more passionate about music. "The war made you more sensitive to human feeling," he says.

Continuing his piano studies as an undergraduate at DePaul University, Rico decided to pursue music education. His high school piano teacher had told him about Northwestern, so he applied to the graduate music program and studied voice under Ruth Heiser and Gerald Smith.

Rico's most vivid Northwestern memory is not the practice rooms but the campus strolls he would always take before performing with the Northwestern Summer Chorus — a visual image that continues to inspire him musically. After graduating, he taught at Englewood, Fenger and Chicago Vocational High Schools and eventually Lane Tech.

When Rico started at Lane, it was an all-boys school, but after girls were admitted, he made adjustments to the choral arrangements. Other changes have been more challenging, requiring adaptation to a radically different environment. "Now children want to learn instantly by pressing a button like they do for a TV," Rico says. "Sometimes it doesn't seem right to teach what you love because you have to pound away at the fundamentals and you don't get to be creative."

Still learning himself, Rico finds time to regularly practice the string bass and his beloved pipe organ. He walks cautiously and talks slowly, but his fingers dance youthfully on the organ, the agile notes perfected by the times they have been performed.

Having had so many teachers himself, Rico understands the importance of quality instruction. As long as young people are willing to learn, he says, he will be willing to teach.

— Jennifer Su (J03)