Chorus of praise

Late choir teacher honored with concert

By: Kip Berman
   HIGHTSTOWN — "There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats."
   The quote from Nobel Prize winning humanitarian and theologian Albert Schweitzer, spoken by Thomas Juzwiak, one of the organizers of last week’s moving tribute to the late Tina Petri, was a succinct summation of but two passions of the beloved Hightstown High School choir director who died in September.
   But if it were just a love of music and cats that drove Ms. Petri, such a large gathering of colleagues, students and alumni would not have filled the high school auditorium Jan. 5 to pay their final respects in an emotional evening of music and memories.
   Instead, it was her kind heart and dedication to teaching that inspired such an outpouring of praise, tears and, most fittingly, song.
   "The best way to say goodbye is through music," said senior David Lerner, a member of the choir. "And we worked so hard to give this to her in her memory. This is our last chance to say goodbye and it feels so good."
   Ms. Petri was choir teacher at Hightstown High for 22 years. She collapsed in her classroom on Sept. 9, succumbing to heart failure.
   Her memory evoked a veritable chorus of praise at the tribute concert in the High School auditorium.
   "Mrs. Petri was always really happy, caring, and looking out for her students’ needs. She was such a warm and fun person. I’m glad we could pay respect to her with this concert," said junior Jessica Martin, another member of the choir.
   "I never saw her not smile," said Amy Doyle, a flutist who traveled with the choir on school trips to Boston and England and performed a flute duet of "Pachelbel’s Canon" with Caroline Cummings. "She really cared so much about music and worked so hard — she would always go out of her way and take so much time to help us."
   Eitan Levine, a pianist who often accompanied the choir, remembered Ms. Petri as a "great and joyful person." As he smiled wistfully, he recalled that even when he made a mistake, she always remained positive and supportive.
   After many such laudatory remarks, it was clear that Ms. Petri’s impact on the students she taught would extend far into the future.
   Shelby Delfino, who performed "Astonishing" from "Little Women," said before singing that Ms. Petri had inspired her to become a choir teacher.
   And while many of her students and colleagues acknowledged Ms. Petri’s predilection for sparkling gowns and her aforementioned love for cats (she owned five), it was her exceptional kindness, generosity and dedication that proved most common among those who sang her praises.
   And it wasn’t just current students who paid their respects to Ms. Petri, but a large number of alumni, such as Anna Breslaw, who expressed gratitude that the concert was scheduled to coincide with their winter break from college.
   Ms. Breslaw, who graduated Hightstown High in 2005, saw the concert as a wonderful opportunity for closure, as many of Ms. Petri’s former students were unable to return for her funeral in the fall.
   "A lot of us didn’t get to have a chance to say goodbye or connect with the event," she said. "A lot of people came back from school to be here."
   One such person was vocal soloist Jared Salwen, a member of the cClass of 2003 and a vocal performance major at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Mr. Salwen, who sang Vaughan Williams’ "Silent Noon," remembered the exceptional dedication and kindness of his former instructor.
   "I remember she put the utmost time and effort into preparing us for concerts and trips. Very few people are as naturally as good-hearted as she was. There was not a mean bone in her body," Mr. Salwen reminisced.
   Though the program ended with a rendition of "Amazing Grace" that featured current music students and alumni, it was the lyrics to the first song, "For Good"— a song Ms. Petri selected for the choir’s 2005 commencement performance — that seemed the most fitting tribute to the late teacher.
   "I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn. And we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them, and we help them in return. Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you."