John Blum’s secret is out.
A few of Lowes Island Elementary School students found out the 87-year-old school volunteer can play the violin, so he expects they will be asking him to perform.
“I’m still amazed I can maneuver my fingers enough to play the violin,” said Blum, the school’s oldest volunteer and a resident at Falcons Landing since 1997. “Using them over the years has kept them limber.”
Blum started out with the 4-H orchestra when he was a high school student in Terryville, Conn., where he was born and raised — the oldest of six children. After high school, he did not touch the instrument for 23 years, since he went off to college, “got married, got a job, got a family and got busy,” he said.
In 1965, Blum’s oldest daughter told her high school band director that her father played the violin, so the band director called Blum. Blum took the violin out of the attic, got it repaired, played for the students and became one of the original members of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra.
“I’m surprised how it came back to me,” said Blum, who played with the orchestra as an avocational musician until 1995, when the group became professional. That year, he joined the McLean Symphony, later volunteering as personnel manager. In 1998, he joined the Reston Chamber Orchestra, since the conductor there also conducted the McLean Symphony. Blum also joined the string quartet at Falcons Landing, a retirement community in Sterling.
A FELLOW Falcons Landing resident encouraged Blum to volunteer at Lowes Island Elementary School. “He was telling me some interesting stories about his experiences, so I thought I’d give it a try,” said Blum.
Three years ago, Blum began volunteering one hour a week to help kindergarten students learn how to identify numbers and letters and develop their reading skills. He works with a kindergarten class each year and one to three students during each of his visits.
The students at first ask Blum how old he is and why his cheeks hang down. “It’s not malicious. It’s innocent little stuff,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed kids. I enjoy interacting with them, and I enjoy the fact I’m doing something to improve their education.”
As for the students, they are “all smiles when I come out. The teachers are all smiles to have me there. It seems to be a good situation for all of us,” Blum said. “Some of them give me a hug just out of the blue.”
Blum recalls a “down day,” the one-year anniversary of his wife Mable’s death in May 2001. The day turned around when he attended a kindergarten program. Students recited from the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech without notes. “The enthusiasm, the talent and the whole theme of the thing lifted my spirits when I was down,” he said.
Blum wrote a thank-you letter to school principal Laurie McDonald, telling her what the program meant to him. “Everything about the place, they made me feel part of the family,” he said.
McDonald wrote back, saying, “I know you enjoy it, but the kids really love you being a part of their school day too.”
“The children get so much from him being in the room,” McDonald said, adding that Blum is reliable and “kind and gentle working with the children. He gives all the children in that class a grandpa.”
Blum also volunteers for the two symphonies and at Falcons Landing, serving on various committees and transporting residents to appointments.
“He’s just an inspiration to the other residents because of his age,” said Pat Clark-Napper, community services manager at Falcons Landing. “He’s so active and just sets a good example that it’s important to stay fit and active as you grow older. He’s very kind and has a marvelous sense of humor, and he’s very much a gentleman.”
BLUM MOVED to Falcons Landing after a 36-year marketing career with the Department of Agriculture. Previously, he lived in Annandale for 32 years and in Reston for 15 years after marrying Mable in 1939 just after he earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Connecticut. He also served in the U.S. Navy from 1944-46 for the supply corps.
“Life has been good to me all these years. Now that I have time, I should give back,” Blum said. “I enjoy doing things for people. Now I have the time to do it.”
Blum has three children, five living grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.