Better than a ball game

Published 8:48 am Tuesday, September 10, 2013

In the football-crazed South, you probably can’t schedule a worse time for an event than a Saturday afternoon in the fall. Weddings have to be scheduled around the bride and groom’s football allegiances. I have played the organ at more than one wedding where a television or radio was discretely hidden somewhere in the church.

If you happen to schedule something on a day when there is a really big, important rivalry game, like Georgia and South Carolina this past weekend, then you should be prepared for an unusual assortment of excuses and a low turnout. That is just the way it is when you are sandwiched between ACC and SEC powerhouse programs.

Imagine then my surprise as I drove up to the Seminole County Elementary School Auditorium at 5 p.m. this past Saturday with my radio still tuned to the Bulldog network’s broadcast. The parking lot was packed with hundreds of automobiles bearing tags from literally around the country. All had come to celebrate the legacy of someone known simply as, “The Coach.”

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Joanne Pierce Drake became a music teacher in the Seminole County system in 1949. She directed the choral program for decades and brought a love for music to many children who had never been exposed to anything beyond the local radio station.

She was the organist and choir director at Friendship United Methodist Church for decades, using her talents to bring out the best in a choir made up of all different ages and abilities. In my 30-plus years as an organist, I have marveled at her talent and dedication. To play an organ and direct a choir at the same time is a skill few can master.

Her students, from around the country, came back to perform a concert in her honor this past weekend. Some of the participants in the program were old enough to be the grandparents of the younger alumni. The combined choir was at times directed by different former students that followed in Drake’s footsteps and became choral and music teachers themselves. Her legacy continues.

Their voices sang in the blended sounds that had been taught for generations by “The Coach” and were presented beautifully to a community that long ago became accustomed to amazing performances by the students of Joanne Drake.

There weren’t many dry eyes as she stood to direct the choir in one of her standard numbers, Carol of the Bells. As always, the finale was a soaring rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. It stirred your heart and was better than any Saturday afternoon touchdown run I have ever seen.

Joanne Drake touched the lives of literally hundreds of students and enriched the worship experience of her church for over 50 years. Saturday afternoon was as touching a tribute as I have ever been privileged to witness.

I was never a student of Joanne Drake and never sang in any of her choirs. But like so many others in this community I have been touched by her love of music and the powerful way it connects those who may have nothing else in common.

Hallelujah, Joanne. Well done.

Dan Ponder can be reached at