“A Way to Share Happiness”
Story by Brooks Clark
“When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get to the band room,” says Jack Fellers. A band director named Bill Dunagan had come to the public high school in tiny Columbiana, Ohio, where he revived a moribund program, got Fellers excited about the French horn, and guided the band to superior ratings at state festivals. “I would have gone into music in a heartbeat,” he says. His dad, Francis, a purchasing agent at the Franklin Furniture Company, and mom, Katherine, insisted that he not become a musician.
At Bowling Green State University, Fellers played in the concert band on his way to his chemistry degree in 1963.
While there, he made the fourth French horn chair in the Toledo Orchestra. After graduating from Bowling Green, it took him only three years to complete his PhD in the University of Akron’s Institute of Polymer and Sciences and Engineering. “I’m not a patient person,” he says, laughing. “I like to say I once prayed for patience but I got really upset when it took so long to arrive.”
While working at Ford Motor Company’s research center in Dearborn, Michigan, Fellers played in an amateur orchestra for a year or so. In 1971 he joined the University of Tennessee’s Department of Chemical, Metallurgical, and Polymer Engineering as an assistant professor. (The department became the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1984.)
During his decades of teaching at UT, he and his wife, Betty Jo, raised four children, all of whom have a penchant for music. “I joked that I gave all my kids an audition before they came home from the hospital,” says Fellers. The oldest, Laura McElroy, started as a piano major at UT but ended up becoming a pharmacist. Michael, a guitarist, plays “House of the Rising Sun” with his dad on piano. Jill played viola in high school. Her twin, Joanne plays piano.
Fellers joined the UT School of Music Advisory Board in 2001 and served as president. Before he retired from teaching in 2004, he took up the piano. “The piano faculty let me take lessons,” says Fellers, “and David Northington took me as his student. I was very impressed with the quality of the teaching in the piano group, and the relationships they established with the students were everything they should be. They had a great manner and they really cared about the students.”
In 2006, Fellers established the Joyful Pursuit of Excellence in Piano Performance Endowment. “I was in a position to give,” says Fellers. “I said to David, ‘What I want you to do with this money is—if these kids have worked hard and want to go someplace and be in a competition, and they need travel money for a hotel or plane ticket, that’s what this is for.’ Over the years I’ve gotten a number of thank-you notes from graduate students.”
Sadly, Betty Jo died in 2010. Several years thereafter, Fellers began volunteering as a piano teacher at the Joy of Music School, where he has served as a board member for six years and board president for the past two, continuing to teach two students over Zoom during the pandemic.
Some five years ago, Fellers saw a concert in Madisonville, Tennessee, of a reconstituted Four Freshmen, whose four-part harmony had inspired Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys among many others. The show led Fellers to pick up his trumpet. “Be patient with yourself and try it,” he told himself.
“It turned out to be just absolutely another dimension in music that’s been really wonderful for me,” he says. “I completely enjoy it.” Fellers has played in a swing band in Tellico Village, Tennessee, and in the house band at his church.
In 2020, Fellers added an estate gift to his endowment. “I’m a gratitude-inspired 80-year-old,” he says. “I talked with someone responsible from estate planning and reflected on my life. I have a sense of gratitude at being able to be involved in the program. The faculty worked with me, and the Haslam building has elevated the school to a unique position. I wanted to take the profound joy and happiness that I’ve had throughout my life through music and pay it forward. I want that money to feed and enable our kids’ dreams. In ‘A Man Becomes his Dream,’ the philosopher Howard Thurman writes of the power of dreams, how they can take hold in an individual, become contagious, and, ‘If the embodiment takes the form of an institution, it means that at the center of the institution there is a living, pulsing core which guarantees not only flexibility but also a continuous unfolding in an increasing dimension of creativity.’ I want our institution to be all that to our musicians.
“I’m a happy person, and that’s a way to share happiness. In the best of worlds, someone else will read this and say, ‘I should do that too.’”