By Kellie Houx
Retired Superintendent Dr. Tom Cummings comes from a family that treasured music. His mother sang in the choir and encouraged her seven children to find their musical niche. He attended a small rural schoolhouse in Indiana where it took combining the students in middle school with those of the high school to have enough students for a chorus.
As the oldest child, Cummings found himself taking up the baritone horn. His sister played the clarinet and the next brother got the trumpet. The fourth child, a son, took up the drums. “When I graduated my sister got the baritone. A younger brother got the clarinet; another played trumpet; and still another played drums. When I graduated, my instrument was handed down to a younger sister. The emphasis on music was a big part of life and so younger siblings inherited our instruments.” Even during basketball games, instead of running to the locker room with the team, he would play with the pep band.
His wife, Margaret, teaches, but she also plays piano and sings. Son Ben took Suzuki lessons on the violin at age 4 and Daniel picked up the cello, also at 4. Ben played at William Jewell College and the Liberty Symphony. The two brothers even played together for weddings and receptions. One of his grandsons plays cello.
Cummings was appointed superintendent of North Kansas City School District in 1995 after 10 years in the role of assistant superintendent for instruction. He retired in 2009. “Maintaining a strings program, as an example, gives young people an appreciation for classical music. It teaches them discipline to be a musician. There is awareness that it takes time to practice. There is enrichment and an improved quality of life to be part of the arts. Whether it is being part of an orchestra, band or choral group, students in the performing arts understand camaraderie. They understand their specific parts, but they know they need to work as a whole.”
Cummings says many modern educators believe that educating the whole child includes music and the arts. “Even today’s business language includes soft skills which are those critical skills like getting along with others and collaboration — a is key to productive work and society.”
To help support the stringed arts in the district, the district education foundation created a fund specifically to honor Cummings and his dedication to music. The fund is aimed at helping beginning stringed students, those in fifth-grade strings, to rent instruments and to help repair existing school instruments. “Budgets are limited for string repairs and purchases. At some point, I also want to see a place where students can take private lessons for a small fee. I would like a sort of institute that supports a strong Suzuki program. I want to ensure that the arts stay a part of public education.”