When Judy Grimes arrived at Elmhurst College in 1992 from a teaching post at Indiana State University, she found a music education program boasting exactly six students.
By the time Grimes retired from teaching this spring, more than 70 Elmhurst students were majoring in music education, and hundreds of her former students could be found directing bands and music programs of their own in schools in the Chicago area and far beyond.
To celebrate Grimes’s career and legacy, more than 100 of those former students returned to campus to honor her with an alumni band concert on May 7 in Hammerschmidt Chapel. Two days later, Grimes led one last end-of-the-year band concert in the Chapel. Her students surprised Grimes with a specially commissioned piece called “To Indomitable Spirit,” written and conducted by Elmhurst alumnus and composer John Robert Matz.
“What an evening,” Grimes said of the concert. “I don’t know how the students managed to find time to rehearse with their busy schedules, but they did, and I loved it. What a joy the past 24 years at Elmhurst College have been.”
In recognition of Grimes’s achievements, May 9 was declared Judy Grimes Day in Elmhurst.
Grimes’s impact as a teacher has extended far beyond Elmhurst. Every January for nearly 40 years she has led students on two-week trips to Jamaica, to work in the schools around Montego Bay. For the past 24 years, those trips have been the heart of an Elmhurst January Term course led by Grimes. Her students have tutored Jamaican children and donated instruments and school supplies that helped launch and sustain band programs there. But Grimes likes to say that her students do more learning than teaching on the trips.
“The experience is based on collaboration,” she said. “The students work with wonderful Jamaican teachers and we share approaches. There is always a lot of laughing and hugging. One of the things they learn is that music really is an international language.”
Grimes will return to Elmhurst for the next two years to lead the January Term course and the student trip to Jamaica.
Grimes founded the annual Western Jamaica International Music Festival, which attracts school bands from around Jamaica to perform with ensembles from Elmhurst and other bands from the United States. The Jamaican school band programs that she helped launch have produced hundreds of working music professionals, providing economic opportunities in Jamaica’s burgeoning tourism industry. Her efforts have won recognition from Jamaica’s government.
Grimes said her work at Elmhurst kept her so busy that she had never considered retiring.
“There was always more to do, there was always music to play,” she said. “I didn’t think about the number of years until last summer when I turned 70 and wondered why I was working so hard.”
Her hard work has not gone unnoticed. In 2009, Grimes was named Distinguished Music Educator of the Year by the Illinois Music Education Association. And in 2007 she received the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching from Elmhurst. But Grimes said working with her students was itself a kind of prize.
“I feel so grateful for having been part of my students’ lives,” she said. “I have enjoyed seeing them grow into talented performers and teachers. I look forward to seeing them touch the future in a positive way.”