By Ron Leir
It was Belleville’s version of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” On Nov. 19 an overflow crowd – mostly alumni who came from all over the U.S. – filled the Connie Francis Theatre at Belleville High School (BHS) to present a moving tribute to a beloved music teacher and friend.
Unfortunately, the guest of honor, Thomas A. Finetti, professor of music and BHS choral director for 38 years, couldn’t be there. He’d been hospitalized with what proved to be a fatal illness; he died two days later the age of 66.
To honor his memory the Belleville school district has named the high school chorus classroom as the “Dr. Thomas A. Finetti, Ph.D. Choral Room” and will dedicate this year’s annual Winter Concerts on Dec. 18 and 20 to Finetti, according to BHS Principal Russ Pagano.
At the high school tribute, former students from each decade of Finetti’s Belleville tenure told the audience of close to 200 how the professor had changed their lives, through his passion for music and his care for their well-being.
Ryan Sheridan, BHS mass communications instructor, arranged for those alumni who didn’t speak publicly to videotape messages to Finetti.
After the current BHS Chorus performed, alumni were invited to the stage to join in the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a particular favorite performance piece of Finetti’s.
Of the approximately 180 people attending – and that included administrators, faculty and students who were present for the board meeting that night – about 150 came up to sing.
Longo credited fellow 1979 alumna Joanne Lucas Morelli as the brainchild behind the Finetti tribute.
“About five weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from Joanne – she’s now living in Pennsylvania – and she asked me if I was still on the board,” Longo said. Lucas Morelli – who helped organize a surprise serenade by some 100 alums in front of Finetti’s house last month – suggested that the board consider presenting a resolution honoring Dr. Finetti for his service to the district. After getting the okay from board president Peter Sangari and Interim Superintendent Helene Feldman, the board arranged to hold the event at its next meeting.
The resolution says, in part, “Educators like Dr. Thomas A. Finetti provide a tremendous service to the future of our School District, Township, State and Nation, inspiring generations of young people in their educational journeys and ensuring their success in their future years; and Dr. Thomas Finetti has clearly had an enduring impact on the youth of the Belleville Public School District, as well as on the community at large, and accordingly merits recognition and applause for his impressive dedication to others….”
Why the adulation?
For Morelli, it was that Finetti “communicated with kids: there was no divide between teacher and students and yet still respect between them.” So much personal attention was bestowed that “he made us all his kids.”
At the high school tribute event, Morelli recalled, “some people said he saved their lives. … The choral room was like the safe haven of the school. When you needed comfort, he’d give it.”
Never one to stand on ceremony, Finetti could invoke humor to get his point across, Morelli said. “He was known to stand on his head or drop and do crunches, just to get your attention, without having to yell. At the same time, though, he took his job seriously. His class wasn’t an easy ‘A’ – he made you work for it. … But you ended up enjoying the experience. … He was just a caring person.”
On a personal note, Morelli remembered that Finetti “came to my father’s funeral during a blizzard in 1993 – and he was the first one there. That meant a lot to me.”
While Finetti was known to have had his share of the spotlight in professional concert venues – he performed as a piano soloist and accompanist with orchestras, including a Carnegie Hall recital – his preference, clearly, was helping sculpt young people’s musical talents.
That affinity for working with students Finetti made clear in a retirement speech in 2006 in which he said, “Nothing could compare with the wonderful feeling of accomplishment I experienced preparing for and directing hundreds of performances with my high school choral groups.”
And, Morelli observed, “that was reflected in how the kids loved him back. It was amazing to see the flocks of (former) students that came back to Belleville to honor him. A doctor alumnus from the ‘90s flew in from Boston to attend the wake. Someone else flew in from Chicago for the funeral. Another person came from North Carolina. I came from Pennsylvania. If it wasn’t for Facebook, it couldn’t have been pulled off.”
Still, in 1988 – when social media didn’t yet exist – Finetti pulled off a hugely successful reunion of the high school music department – an event that drew some 450 alums, faculty and parents – “which he organized through a phone chain,” Morelli recalled.
When Longo, the board member, was a BHS junior, he didn’t take classes with Finetti but had him as a study hall proctor. “I used to bounce up and down in my chair until he’d give me a hall pass to leave,” Longo said, chuckling. “He’d say to me, ‘Are you trying to be a gorilla?’
’’ Later, Longo sufficiently recognized the virtues of this musical maven to become a solid supporter of the BHS Music Parents Association as his daughter Natalie took chorus and band and son Joseph III, band and orchestra. Sgt. Joseph Longo has been a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Band for the past seven years.
“Dr. Finetti had a profound impact on the district,” Longo said. “He was the consummate professional and he cared deeply about his students and the music. … Every year, he’d go to the junior high to audition every music student for the (high school) chorus.”
“I don’t know if he was a celebrity outside his community,” Longo said, “but I do know he left his mark on the lives of several hundred people.”
As Morelli put it, “(Finetti) brought it in on personal level. He brought himself to your level. He just related to kids as equals. He was one of a kind who’s never going to come around again. I’m honored to have had him as a teacher.”
At Finetti’s funeral Mass, held Nov. 26 at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Nutley, members of the BHS Class of 2005 Chorus performed; Natalie Nachimson sang an operatic version of “Ave Maria,” and Gonzalo Valencia was the pianist, all in their former teacher’s honor.
Born in Newark, Finetti lived in Nutley 37 years. Having earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in music at New York University, Finetti also served as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Kean University.
Survivors include his wife, Immaculate Nancy (nee Lamola) Finetti; son Thomas M.; daughter Cristina Baragona; sister Mary Strauss; brother Vito; and many nieces and nephews.
Arrangements were by the Biondi Funeral Home, Nutley