Music teacher inspired many during 45-year tenure

May 30, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- The school's name was modified twice. Its student and faculty numbers have skyrocketed. And the sweet-smelling peach trees that grew on its lawn were felled long ago to make way for buildings and parking lots.

But through more than four decades of change at Salisbury State University, Dr. Jessie L. Fleming had been a constant presence in the classroom and concert hall.

Until now.

At the end of yesterday's commencement ceremony, "Dr. Jessie," as the admired and outspoken music professor is known by students and colleagues, removed her academic robe for the last time and stepped down from the teaching job she held for 45 years.

In 1948, when she began teaching at what was then called Salisbury State Teachers College, Dr. Fleming had no clue that she would become one of the longest tenured professors in the entire University of Maryland school system.

"The years sort of tumble over each other," she said. "One falls into a long pattern and all of a sudden 20 or 30 years go by."

As a newly married woman in her early 20s, she abandoned the cultural hub of Manhattan and moved to Salisbury to be with her husband, Dr. Maurice C. Fleming, an Eastern Shore native and biology professor she met while she was studying at New York University.

When she came to Salisbury, she was not prepared for what she found.

"Believe me, it was a culture shock," she said. "It was like coming to the end of the world." Although it was the Eastern Shore's largest town, Salisbury at the time was remote and reflected the region's dependence on the rural farm economy.

She made friends, though, and said she decided early on to stick it out despite the differences between Albany, N.Y., where she was reared, New York City, where she studied piano and violin, and Salisbury.

"I was in love, and that colors a lot of things," she said.

Her first job on the Eastern Shore was teaching music to public school pupils in the little towns of Mardela Springs, Nanticoke and Hebron.

"There would be tomato and potato trucks driving on these narrow country roads, she said. "I wasn't used to that. I literally got off the road every time one of these came along. I was scared to death."

It would be several years before the bay bridge would link the shores of the Chesapeake and the Flemings -- who both landed teaching jobs at the college -- found themselves taking the train to New York routinely to satisfy their yearnings for music and theater.

Dr. Fleming helped foster music appreciation in Salisbury churches and in the Wicomico County public schools.

She assisted in the founding of the Salisbury Community Singers and conducted the College Chorus for 30 years.

As a teacher, Dr. Fleming is remembered as demanding but willing to give students a second chance.

Avery Saulsbury, the university's registrar, was a math major who took a required course in music fundamentals under Dr. Fleming. She gave him a failing grade.

"I was just a good ole country boy who liked to listen to rock 'n roll," he said. "I wasn't interested in Mozart. She made me aware that I didn't know anything about it."

Mr. Saulsbury said he paid more attention the second time he took Dr. Fleming's course and managed to pass.

"I haven't listened to a lot of classical music since then, but at least I have an appreciation for it, which is what she was trying to accomplish."

PD When Dr. Fleming joined the school's teaching staff in 1948, the

faculty totaled 22. Thirty-nine students graduated that year.

In 1963, administrators dropped the "Teachers" from the school name and began expanding the campus and curriculum.

The music department, with Dr. Fleming at its head, grew to seven full-time and several part-time teachers. In 1988, the school was renamed Salisbury State University. The faculty now numbers 236 teachers and yesterday 988 graduates received degrees.

As the school expanded to university size and its academic mission was no longer designed to produce teachers, Dr. Fleming's role changed, too, she said.

She relinquished the chair of the department and for the past several years taught music fundamentals to students interested in learning to play instruments.

Her personal life also has changed. She and her husband were divorced and Keith, one of her two sons, died last year.

For Dr. Fleming, the dusk of her teaching career had brought her full circle to the courses she taught at the outset.

And, she said, that's what drew her into teaching in the first place.

"There is great satisfaction in taking students who don't know a note from a hole in the head and, in less than four years, watching them pick up a piece of simple music and play it." The grandmother of three, Dr. Fleming said her retirement will give her time to visit her family and to travel abroad.

Leaving a career after 45 years isn't all sour notes, she said, glancing at a room filled with electronic keyboards and computers.

"I never did like those electronic things," she said.

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