If students in the Hastings school district appreciate music, it’s likely due in no small part to Dan Kerness, the district’s beloved vocal and music teacher who made his seven years at Hastings a musical affair.
On Friday, one week before they are to open their musical “Footloose,” students at Hastings High School will join staff and students from across the district to bid farewell to the man who taught them to love music, who coaxed madrigals out of Maroon 5 fans. Though his heart was ailing, it was the part of him most remembered by those who spoke today, and wrote notes and remembrances on the paper-shrouded columns in the school’s lobby. He touched students and staff with his caring, his attention to detail and his love of music.
One student wrote: “I will never understand why bad hearts are given to good people. I’ll never forget you.”
Another quoted The Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. I’ll miss you Mr. Kerness.”
Another recalled Kerness’ impression of “South Park” character Eric Cartman and thanked him for always saying hello. Yet another for being “a father to me when I needed one.”
School will let out early on Friday, buses will carry most of Hastings to Woodlands Temple in Greenburgh for services at noon.
Emily Romano, 17, a Hastings senior who plays Vi in the musical, said her class was the first class of fifth-graders that Kerness taught when he arrived at Hastings to teach music appreciation in elementary schools, 7th and 8th grade chorus and chorus and madrigals at the high school.
“I’ve had him every year since fifth grade,” she said, adding softly: “We had a good-bye party the Thursday before spring break and I think that’s the last time most of us saw him.”
Romano remembers the breathing exercises Kerness would teach his classes, showing them how to put their hands on their stomachs to make sure they were breathing correctly when making hard “H” sounds
“He had a round stomach so he would joke around and say, ‘I know it feels stupid, but you can really see it on me,'” Romano said, laughing at the memory. “He would do all these funny things that embodied his personality.”
Most of the “Footloose” cast learned of Kerness’ passing at Wednesday’s rehearsal, when director Laurie Walton and district production coordinator Gerard Marciano broke the news to an emotional group of students.
“We talked for a little bit, but it was not a good time,” Romano said. “But I feel like this is going to inspire us to do better in the show, like more people are going to want to make this show good.”
Freshman Zach Pearson, 14, plays Ren McCormack, the kid from the city who stirs things up when he moves to tiny Bomont, a town that has outlawed dancing. He recalled Kerness as a teacher who cared.
“I was not always the easiest to deal with, but he was always in my corner, which was nice.”
“He helped me go from not being focused and not thinking about the things I was doing to being more in the moment and thinking about what I was doing in all aspects of my life, which was really important to me,” Pearson said.
The show will go on.
“We have to think about it as this is what he would want, an amazing show. He loved all the shows here. He was always an active participant in directing and things, so he’d really want us to do an amazing show. That might help us pull through and have a great show.”
Marciano, who teaches English in addition to coordinating shows across three schools, said Kerness would typically direct two shows per year. This year, owing to his illness, he directed just one, last fall’s high-school play, “Voices from High School.”
“He had a great sense of humor and he was very confident,” Marciano said. “When you didn’t give 100 percent, you heard about it. He showed you that giving 100 percent was 100 percent better than anything else you ever gave. That’s Dan’s legacy.”
Kerness leaves behind two sons, Micah and Tobin.