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Tribute for a Jazz Messenger

Jack Dahlinger brought music to generations of students.

Longtime band director at T.C. Williams High School, Jack Dahlinger, died July 12. He was 75. Dahlinger was hired by Alexandria City Public Schools in 1957, and he led T.C. Williams High School's music program from 1965 to 1989.

"He inaugurated the band pavilion at T.C. Williams when it opened in 1965," said Tom Cunningham, a trumpet player from the class of 1970. "You can't open a drawer in that building without seeing his mark of distinction."

For Cunningham, Dahlinger's brilliance as a teacher came from the gentleness of his spirit — a humanizing force in the often rough world of high school. At Dahlinger's funeral last weekend, the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 summed up Dahlinger's personality: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud."

"That passage was just perfect," Cunningham said. "He was patient and kind, and he was the embodiment of true love."

For Cunningham, who now leads the Tom Cunningham Orchestra, the seeds of his musical life were planted in the school's music pavilion in the late 1960s, a turbulent time when music brought people together. Jerrold Epstein, a trumpet player from the class of 1973, remembers racial tensions evaporating under Dahlinger's command.

"In the band pavilion, everybody was an equal," he said. "When I think back to my high school years, all of my happiest memories happened in that pavilion. Those were wonderful times."

DAHLINGER WAS a trumpet player, a lover of jazz and a teacher of extraordinary talent. These gifts mingled effortlessly as he conducted classical works for the orchestral band, blocked performance steps for the marching band or encouraged unsure students in the beginner's band.

A native of Pittsburgh, he went to South Hills High School and received a bachelor's degree from Indiana State Teachers' College. In 1953, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He was stationed in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he played in the 328th Army band.

In 1955, he married a classmate from the teachers' college, Rae Williamson. They moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he earned a master of arts in music from Ohio State University. In 1957, the Dahlingers moved to Alexandria, where Jack Dahlinger took a position teaching an 8th grade band program. When T.C. Williams opened, he was hired to lead the music program there. In 1989, he retired from the high school.

"He was a very talented musician, and I'm sure he could have gone on to be very successful as a professional had he chosen that path," said Melanie Mudlin. "But I think he just loved kids, and he wanted to be at T.C. Williams."

Mudlin remembers playing in the school's jazz band during "adults only" dances in the school's cafeteria, when parents would dance to popular standards. Dahlinger would always take center stage to play the solo on his favorite song, "Tenderly." Then he would dance with his wife for the rest of the evening.

"It never felt like he was a teacher," said Epstein. "I always felt like he was a member of the family. You were a member of his family, and he was a member of your family."

THE CLOSE BOND Dahlinger forged with the students at T.C. Williams created lasting legacies. His concern for the welfare of others made its mark on the student body.

"He was more than just a teacher, he was a mentor, a role model and an inspiration," said Mayor Bill Euille, a clarinet player from the class of 1968. "He was the one person who put me on the path to success in terms of my career, and I attribute my success to the lesson he taught me in the band room at T.C. Williams."

Dahlinger's love of music and joy for life inspired students. And his passion for jazz was particularly influential, introducing students to new genres — broadening horizons and expanding possibilities.

"The reason he was a great band director is because he was very interested in planting the seeds of interest and exposing kids to all kinds of music," said Patty Stang Hinzman, a flute player from the class of 1974. Hinzman said one of the most remarkable features of Dahlinger's leadership of the music program was his ability to get musical giants to come perform at the school — such greats as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.

"I don't know how he did it," Hinzman said. "But he got all of these famous people to come perform at the school."

Before being exposed to it by Dahlinger, Hinzman didn't know much about jazz. But even now — 30 years after the band director's influence in her life — jazz is her favorite form of music. And his lessons — patience and kindness and love — still resonate.

Hinzman remembers a line Dahlinger used to say, a mantra that he repeated often. It's about playing music, but its value is universal: "Anyone can play loud; it takes a musician to play softly and in tune."

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, five children, a brother and 11 grandchildren.