|Flourish Online Magazine||Fall 2012|
Joseph Meeks: Building and encouraging a life of excellence and significance
By Cheryl D. Anderson
Reverently, the middle-aged lady drew back the cloth to reveal a gleaming Steinway & Sons piano. The young boy held his breath. “Now,” she said, “You are ready.”
A young Joseph Meeks seated himself on the bench as his fingers trailed purposefully across the keys of the treasured instrument. In that moment, he first experienced the rewards of hard work combined with natural talent. It was a feeling he would strive to repeat throughout the next six decades.
Dean Joseph Meeks
Photo by Ann Almasy
In March of 1957, Ms. Floride Cox, piano teacher, and Edwin Gerschefski, Dean of Converse College School of Music, congratulate Joseph Meeks on his Walter Spry Memorial Scholarship
“When Miss Floride finally let me play her Steinway,” he recalls, “I knew I had reached a milestone in my development. I knew, even at that young age, that I had arrived at something significant.”
Today, that very Steinway piano holds a hallowed spot in Meeks’ own living room, a treasured memory of practicing endless hours under Miss Floride’s ever-watchful tutelage. A precious gift from dedicated teacher to devoted student, it stands as a constant reminder to Meeks that excellence is its own reward.
That value was instilled in him from the beginning, when his parents, Floyd and Sallie Meeks, sought out Floride Cox to teach their middle son in the hardscrabble small, southern, cotton mill town of Belton, South Carolina. An intrepid, self-made businessman, Floyd Meeks never did things by half measures. So, when the youngster had a desire to play the piano, his father would only permit him to study with the best teacher in the region. Her studio was full, but Floride Cox couldn’t say no to the lanky boy with the big, brown eyes, and she would guide his career in ways they never anticipated. Together, they envisioned a life as a concert pianist for her talented student.
Under her guidance, Meeks, a gifted, scholarly student, graduated from high school a year early and was awarded the four-year Walter Spry Memorial Scholarship to study with noted American composer and performer Edwin Gerschefski. Gerschefski was the Dean of the School of Music at the conservatory of Cox’s alma mater, the Converse College School of Music, located in Spartanburg, S.C. Since Converse’s academic college was, at the time, solely a women’s college, Meeks and the other male music students dual-enrolled at nearby Wofford College. Meeks rode his bicycle across town to Converse every day until his father purchased him a 1947 gray Chevrolet coupe two weeks after school began. It was a welcome gesture: the distance and time were eating into his practice time at the piano. It was at Converse that the future fundraiser first learned the importance of donor support. “Every room, every building, every scholarship had someone’s name on it,” Joseph Meeks remembers. “Every day, I was surrounded by all of these people, whom I’d never met, who were silently supporting me. It’s something I never forgot.”
Gerschefski was then appointed the dean of the School of Music at the University of Georgia, and Meeks followed him, completing a Bachelor of Music degree and then a Master of Fine Arts terminal degree, both in piano performance. During the tumult of the 1960s, Meeks began teaching at the historically black Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University. It was an unlikely place for the pale, young man from a small, rural town in South Carolina, but a time rich with history-making events for Meeks. He met Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington and jazz pianist Don Shirley, among other notables. He was still not convinced that he should be a teacher, but fate was leading the way. Meeks soon became a beloved professor, but things were not always easy. He vividly remembers the day one of his Clark students came running up to him, panic and concern in her eyes. “Meeksie! Meeksie!” she cried. “The King is dead, the King is dead! You gotta get out of here,” referring to the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Meeks calmly reassured the visually shaken student. “I wasn’t afraid of what might happen,” he says. “I knew I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do,” and he remained steadfast during this troubling time.
While teaching, Meeks continued to pursue his performance career through studying at Yale University with pianist and former dean of Yale’s School of Music Bruce Simonds. This was followed by time with Hungarian-born pianist Bela Boszormenyi-Nagy, at Boston University, and with Mozarteum Academy of Music (now Mozarteum University) pianist Heinz Scholz and Angelica Morales von Sauer, concert pianist and artist-in-residence at the prestigious Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. Meeks’ musical legacy reaches directly back to Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart.
A thirty-something Joseph Meeks prepares for another classical piano recital
As his career as a performer grew, Meeks was invited to perform at a brand new little college nestled among the pine trees and cow pastures of northern Cobb County, Georgia. Before he knew it, his life reached another turning point when he was invited to join the faculty of Kennesaw Junior College in 1975 as one of only three music faculty members. “It seemed like a big risk to leave a tenured position at Clark and re-launch my career at this small school no one had ever heard of,” he remembers, “but my family and former professors supported me. I could have stayed where I was comfortable, but Kennesaw offered an opportunity to help build something significant and realize the dreams that reached back to my youth. My entrepreneurial spirit took charge and we were off and running to build what you see today."
For Wayne Gibson, who headed the Kennesaw music program from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, hiring Joseph Meeks was no risk at all. “It was probably the best decision I made in my entire career,” he says with nearly 40 years’ hindsight. “He was a very hard worker and such a good pianist. We were able to talk about curriculum and teaching. It was a pleasure to have that kind of colleague.”
Even then, Meeks’ pursuit of his own artistic goals as a concert pianist did not cease. When he heard that William Masselos, one of the most respected pianists of his time, would be teaching at Georgia State University as part of their artist-in-residence program, Meeks asked to study with him. In addition to studying with Masselos, he was required to enroll in additional course work, which led to his realization that he only needed to complete two public recitals to earn an additional degree: the Master of Music.
Throughout his piano studies, Meeks never forgot the artistic value of Steinway pianos that he had first learned in Miss Floride’s studio. She had taught him to insist on excellence and would not permit him to attend any college that had not been accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). He carried both of these lessons with him to Kennesaw State and immediately began working to ensure that the music program reached these high milestones. Together, he and Gibson wrote the curriculum for a bachelor’s degree in music, and it became one of only six bachelor’s degrees offered by the school when it became a four-year college in 1981. Once Kennesaw State had enough music alumni and met the strenuous criteria to apply for NASM accreditation, they co-wrote the application and, in 1984, they received that coveted membership. Earning a Steinway School designation would take a bit longer, for it required that most of the school’s inventory of pianos be manufactured by Steinway & Sons. This was a lofty goal because the state bid requirement often resulted in a less expensive product and not the quality of the 80 percent handmade Steinway pianos. So, in the 1970s, Meeks wrote a justification as to why his students deserved to study and perform on the most superbly crafted piano available, and his proposal, after much scrutiny, was finally authorized to purchase Kennesaw State’s first seven-foot Steinway B piano. In the 1990s, Joseph Meeks set out to purchase a larger Steinway piano, a 9-foot Steinway D (the official concert grand size). He pooled money from every source he could find and repeatedly, year after year, it was not enough, until finally in the late ‘90s, he met his goal and the first Steinway concert piano arrived at KSU. One Steinway piano, however, did not make an All-Steinway School — that would take another decade, with fate giving him a helping hand.
Dean Meeks with arts supporter Timothy J. Ste Marie
At about the same time, things were changing in the music department. Meeks was about to reach another turning point in his life. As Gibson prepared to retire as department chair, he went to Meeks with a completely unexpected proposal. By then, there were several more music professors to choose from, but Gibson had recommended to the administration that Meeks be invited to lead the department. “When I asked him to cover for me before my retirement, he was stunned,” Gibson says. “He didn’t feel like an administrator. I knew he could do the job, but neither of us knew what a real talent he had for administration.”
Though honored, Meeks was hesitant to accept the responsibility. It would mean less time in the classroom and on the concert stage. Once again, however, his family advised him that he could take this opportunity to make a difference and do things he had always dreamed of. From that point, he avidly began to pursue another goal for music at Kennesaw State: an acoustically-stellar concert hall. With little public money available for this new dream, Meeks began in earnest his career as a fundraiser extraordinaire. He also showed his appreciation for the scholarships he had received by setting a goal of creating scholarship endowments to attract and retain the best students possible.
Soon, those endowments started to grow and interest in the concert hall gained attention. Then came yet another turning point. With the retirement of the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, KSU separated the disciplines, creating the School of the Arts, and asked Meeks to be the acting dean until a national search could identify the best candidate for the job. As it turned out, after conducting the process of committee interviews and formal presentations, they decided that Meeks, one of three finalists for the position, was the most qualified person, and he was named the permanent, founding dean in 2001. Yet, for Meeks, accepting the position was truly a sacrifice.
Dean Meeks plans his schedule with his longtime assistant, Melissa Fryer
Such an intense administrative role would take him almost entirely out of the classroom and leave him little time for his own rehearsals and performances. “I no longer had Miss Floride or my parents to mentor and guide me, and I really pondered the decision to accept the invitation,” he recalls. “I spent hours walking and thinking, working in the yard and thinking. I could hear Miss Floride in my mind, telling me that I had accomplished so many significant things as the chair of music. She had once said shortly before she died, as we were driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains on our way to the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina for a concert, ‘Now, let’s see, you are the chair of the Department of Music, right?’ My answer, as always, was, ‘Yes ma’am.’ She turned to me and said, ‘Well, they’re going to make you dean next.’ And I said, ‘No, ma’am. This is as far as I will have time to go in the administrative chain.’ She said, ‘You’ll see.’ In so many ways, she was my angel and I oftentimes lovingly accuse her of dying, going to heaven and making me dean,” he jokes with a fond smile. Her prediction had come true.
“The uncanny turn of events, upon reflection, was that my career was modeling those teachers/mentors of my own academic preparation — in particular, Edwin Gerschefski, administrator, professor and performer. What could be a better career? It enabled me to embrace the talents I had for all three,” Meeks says.
Having accepted this broader role, Meeks expanded his goals of national accreditation, superior facilities and scholarship endowments for all of the arts departments. One by one, accreditations were achieved, scholarships created and new buildings opened, thanks to the support of then-president Betty Siegel. Then, Dr. Bobbie Bailey, a close friend of Meeks, generously gifted an endowment to construct the concert hall he had long strived for; it was finally constructed in 2007.
As part of her naming gift for the new concert hall, the Dr. Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center, Bailey asked if she could give the school a piano in memory of her mother. Meeks was delighted, but he insisted that it be a Steinway; he took Bailey with him to New York to handpick the new instrument. “Piano Professor David Watkins and I played every piano at the factory for her, until we were finally able to select just the right one to honor the memory of her mother, Mary Bailey,” Meeks says.
Dean Meeks celebrates the opening of the Dr. Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center
When they returned to Kennesaw State for a grand opening concert celebrating the new hall and the new piano, Bailey revealed a huge surprise. “I have one more thing I want to do. I want to make Kennesaw’s School of Music an All-Steinway School,” she told the 624-seat, standing-room-only audience, who cheered uproariously for this phenomenal announcement.
“I was truly amazed,” Meeks says. “For so long, I had dreamed of that moment, but I was almost unprepared for it. I could not believe it was happening.” With that announcement, Bailey revealed that she was replacing the school’s entire inventory of 27 pianos with the instruments that Meeks had been taught from childhood were the most excellent in the world.
In addition to the Dr. Bobbie Bailey and Family Performance Center, the Onyx Theater, made possible by a generous endowment funded by anonymous donors, opened in fall of 2009 and the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art, realized from benefactor Bernard Zuckerman’s challenge gift, is slated to open in fall 2013. Meeks also played a key role in the construction of the Visual Ats Building in 2002 and the Dance Studios at Chastain Pointe, which are currently in phase II of constuction. “I never stopped pushing myself,” Meeks says, “and I always encouraged the faculty, staff and students to commit themselves to strive to do work of true significance and to always aim for excellence.”
The growth at the College of the Arts has continued with even more scholarships, facilities and programs. Meeks is preparing to step down as dean in February 2013 and explore the next phase in his career, but the legacy of his leadership will not be forgotten, according to his colleagues.
“During the years that Dean Meeks has led the College of the Arts, the college has grown in size, reputation, quality and private support,” remarks KSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ken Harmon. “All departments and schools in the college that can be accredited by national accrediting agencies are accredited, or are in the process of being accredited. Similarly, as a friend-raiser and fund-raiser, Joe’s skills deserve special mention. The College of the Arts has more endowed scholarships than any other college at Kennesaw State.”
For Gibson, who first invited Meeks to campus, the praise is more personal. “Joe helped make my career a joy. I am very, very proud of what we started and of what he continued, not just in music, but in all of the arts.”
One can only imagine Miss Floride would say the same thing. After years of delaying the decision to achieve “just one more goal,” Meeks is at last passing his baton to others, with the voice of his angel whispering once again, “Now, you are ready.”