Last June, I walked in through the B-Wing entrance at West Morris Central High School on a weeknight to partake in a choir rehearsal. This is something I had done many times before, but this time was different. It felt a little weird, at first; I was about five years removed from my last high school choir concert, but I, along with several other alumni of the West Morris Choir, was drawn back for a very special occasion.
After 40 years of teaching music to countless high school students, Dr. Vincent Rufino would be retiring at the conclusion of the school year. Later that week, Dr. Rufino would conduct his final concert as the choir teacher at West Morris Central, and we were gathered to sing the school song, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah—three pieces done every year by the West Morris Choir—as a parting gift at the concert.
Still, it felt strange as I walked through the same double doors I had walked through so many times in the past. The strange feeling went away, though, as soon as I made the quick left into the choir room.
Then, I immediately felt like I was home.
The school’s football field and the auditorium stage each had turns playing their role of sanctuary throughout my youth. No place on campus, however, quite filled that role like the choir room where Dr. Rufino taught. To this day, I cannot recall a bad day spent in that room where so many of us grew not only as musicians, but as human beings due to his guidance, encouragement, and support in all of our endeavors.
The way he was able to enrich the lives of his students is not lost on Dr. Rufino, who was inducted onto the West Morris Faculty Wall of Fame in a ceremony at the school on Monday morning. In fact, some of his favorite memories came from watching his students grow into young adults who were ready to take on the world.
“It’s always been nice to see the kids who came in with little ability graduating with a lot more ability. I remember one girl who was very shy and wouldn’t sing by herself, and by her senior year she auditioned for Concert Choir (the school’s select chorus) because she had gotten the confidence in herself to do something like that,” said Dr. Rufino following Monday’s ceremony. “It’s nice to see people that follow your profession, because it’s a direct reflection of what you did, but it’s even better to see people who say, ‘I have my own children singing in choir because I loved it so much.'”
Dr. Rufino’s impact on the lives of those he has encountered is large, considering that several alumni of his choir have gone on to teach music at area schools including Delbarton and West Morris Mendham. In fact, West Morris’ current choir teacher, Caitlin O’Leary, is a 2003 graduate of West Morris that sang in Dr. Rufino’s choir.
In addition to having his choir produce several choral directors, Dr. Rufino was able to impact performing arts as a whole at West Morris Central. Not only did he assist in designing the school’s current band room and new auditorium, but it was his love of music, his profession, and his students and fellow faculty members that enabled Dr. Rufino to re-launch the school’s musical theatre tradition.
In his first year at West Morris, Dr. Rufino, along with fellow Wall of Fame Inductee Marion Edwards, joined forces to produce “Oliver”. This was a production which, despite its budget and expectations, flourished under the hard work of all those involved.
“We had almost no money, and we figured we could put the boys in plaid shirts and blue jeans, and that would be the costumes. The kids who came out for the play were very leery of the two of us because we were both new to the school. They didn’t know us,” said Dr. Rufino. “We sold out both performances, and the kids were amazed because, up to that time, they used to do just a comedy or a drama, and they got maybe 20 or 30 people in the audience. Here, they were in their first musical, and they sold out the house in two days.”
According to West Morris acting principal Gil Moscatello, Dr. Rufino has always had a knack for getting his students to perform beyond their expectations.
“He’s the teacher’s teacher; he’s an extraordinaire. He has the ability to work with young people,” said Moscatello. “He has the ability to get people to go beyond what they thought they could do, and that’s one of the keys for successful teaching, when you can get young people to reach their point where they’re striving past that.”
Even outside of the performing arts realm, Dr. Rufino is admired for his work toward making the school community a better place.
“He was very, very involved in a lot of things that the school did. Middle States Committees, Curriculum Committees, negotiation committees—he was involved with a lot of different parts of the school,” said Moscatello. “You can honestly say that he was immersed in his profession. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional person.”
On Monday, Dr. Rufino reached the pinnacle for any faculty member of West Morris Central by joining some of the all-time great educators to walk the school’s hallways on the Wall of Fame—including those who were a part of West Morris’ inaugural faculty.
“I had just finished two years of teaching when I came to West Morris, and a lot of the teachers that are on the Wall of Fame now were already established teachers here,” said Dr. Rufino. “They were really looked up to by the students, they were really successful folks. To be in that category, to me, is a real honor.
“From that point of view, it’s a real honor for me, especially being with these people that were here when the building opened,” continued Dr. Rufino. “They always had that illustriousness. It’s like talking about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, the people that started the school.”
As a 2005 graduate of West Morris, and as a four-year member of Dr. Rufino’s choir, I congratulate and thank a man for whom I have the utmost respect. Dr. Rufino helped me become much more than a better singer; the nurturing atmosphere of that same choir room to which I returned last June helped turn me into a better person, and that’s something I can hold onto much longer than any note in Messiah.