POTSDAM -- John O. Gerrish, a former Potsdam resident and the oldest living alumnus of SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends recently.
Born in Watson on Aug. 31, 1910, Gerrish grew up in Potsdam and started the Red and Gray Orchestra at Potsdam High School in 1924.
After graduating from high school in 1927, Gerrish attended what was then known as the Crane Department of Music at the Potsdam Normal School, and completed his three-year degree in 1930. To mark his century milestone, Gerrish’s family and friends put together a musical celebration in Saranac Lake for the longtime music educator and composer. Gerrish’s great-grandchildren performed as an ensemble with piano and strings, and his children, Mary, Cathy and Jim played their father’s 1957 composition, “Variations on a Burgundian Carol,” written for a trio of recorders. Then, grandchildren and friends of the family joined in for a group performance of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” conducted by Gerrish from his chair. Finally, 17 of Gerrish’s 18 descendants sang his 1953 published piece, “I Sing a Maiden.” SUNY Potsdam student Kama Prellwitz of Rainbow Lake who is a friend of the family and a violinist who performed at the party, presented the man of honor with an arrangement of flowers sent by Crane School of Music Dean Michael Sitton. A man of many talents, Gerrish conducted his own dance orchestra from 1925 to 1930, played piano for Barney Rapp and the New Yorkers, played saxophone, clarinet and flute for McPhee’s Red Jackets, and also performed on piccolo, bass horn, violin, viola and trumpet in Crane ensembles. He also sang in and conducted multiple choirs. Gerrish went on to teach music at Nutley High School in Nutley, NJ, and later returned to Crane to be a piano instructor in 1933.
He married Marion Benham, whom he had met at Crane, in 1936, and began to teach music at Franklin Academy and play organ at First Congregational Church in Malone, NY.
Gerrish completed his master’s degree in music at Syracuse University in 1942 and went on to teach music at New Jersey State Teacher’s College, now known as Kean University, in Union Township, NJ.
Throughout his life, he continued to compose and arrange music, work as a church organist, conduct a family chorus and accompany other groups. "The Crane School of Music wishes Jack a fond happy birthday as he looks back on 100 years of music-making with his family and friends,” Sitton said. “As Jack’s own family celebrates this wonderful occasion, the larger Crane family of students, faculty and alumni celebrates with him. As he has carried the Crane vision of music-making through a long and rewarding century, Crane remains a tight-knit community dedicated to sharing a love of music with generations to come.”