The steel drum sounds that filled the room at Catonsville High School were so infectious that students playing the instruments couldn't help but dance. Music teacher Jim Wharton, the cavorting leader of the impromptu jam session, was steadily beating a cowbell when he stared out a nearby window and spotted a truck driver looking in while reversing the vehicle.
"Come on," Wharton beckoned, motioning the driver to pull over and join the troupe. Even though his calls went unheeded, the 62-year-old child at heart resumed getting his groove on, savoring the Caribbean flavor he helped introduce to Baltimore County schools more than 20 years ago.
After teaching music in the county for nearly 40 years, Wharton is retiring. His last day teaching is Friday, the end of the academic calendar for Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
A Towson resident and Catonsville High graduate, Wharton departs after having served 24 years as the school's music department chair. He's been eligible for retirement for the past eight years, but he has remained, stirred by an energy and enthusiasm to share his passion with students.
"Music comes out of every pore of his body," said Catonsville Principal Deborah Bittner, who is also retiring.
It's among the reasons the former Baltimore County Teacher of the Year will continue to work contractually as director of the steel drum band that he launched in 1991. It is believed to be the first high school steel drum band in Maryland, a precursor to others at middle and high schools around the state.
The band has become a Catonsville High staple, with nearly two dozen performances in the area this year. It practices in a school room that Wharton calls a "pan yard," taking the name from the venue in which Caribbean steel drum bands rehearse.
Wharton began teaching at Dulaney High School in Timonium in 1975, launching the school's string instrument program. He joined the staff at Catonsville in 1988.
"I'm definitely getting older and getting tired, but I love it, especially the interaction and making the music. I wasn't ready to give that up," said Wharton. The school recently named one of its auditoriums Wharton Hall in his honor.
Some of Wharton's current students say he mentioned retirement earlier this year, though such rumors have been swirling for years. Underclassmen are already lamenting his departure and will miss the adrenaline rush his class would give to a school day.
"He'll realize something that he can do and he'll scream, then jump up and run across the room and say, 'Look at this! This is so cool!' And he'll have to show it to us really fast," said Catonsville sophomore Alex Armbruster. "He's so passionate. It's the most involved and committed to teaching ... that I've ever seen."
"I have learned more in one year with Mr. Wharton about music than any other year of music study," said Catonsville junior Rosie Alger.
Some former students say his passion often overshadows his talents and dedication to his craft. Among them: Chris Norman, whose flute playing is featured in the Oscar-winning soundtrack of "Titanic."
"Everyone talks about how much fun he is and so forth, but it's important to remember that when it comes down to the actual business of being a musician, he's fabulous," said Norman, a former student of Wharton's at Dulaney who now lives in Nova Scotia. "He's got an encyclopedic knowledge of music and he's an absolute master. He really reinforced my appreciation for rhythm. For me, that was kind of a life-changing event, especially as a flute player."
Wharton's eyes well with tears when conjuring up his music roots: singing in the choir at Catonsville United Methodist Church at age 6, listening to his maternal grandmother play piano at family events throughout childhood, playing timpani for the Bach Society of Baltimore while in high school.
His enthusiasm, he said, came from his father, a three-sport college athlete and a high school football coach.
Wharton graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with an undergraduate music degree and then from Temple University with a degree in music theory, but said that during his junior year at College Park he realized that performing professionally full time wasn't his forte.
"Quite honestly, I didn't have the drive to do the practicing on my own that was needed. I would much rather work with a group," Wharton said. "I also found pretty early this energy I have for helping others. It worked well for me."
Wharton ultimately gravitated to education, harnessing his bubbly personality and zeal for music into a teaching style he crafted after watching a CBS News segment of a high school French instructor who had won a national teaching award.
"They showed a clip of him trying to get a kid to pronounce a French word by grabbing his face and forming the sound with his mouth, and the kids all around were laughing hysterically. I thought, 'I would want to be in his class,' " Wharton said. "That type of outrageous, funny, entertaining behavior is what kids remember.
"One of my college professors for music theory used to say, 'When you're in front of a class, make sure the next thing you say to them is the most important thing you can say to them at that time,' " Wharton added. "He said, 'Create a sense of urgency in the teaching.' Kids these days have so many distractions. I feel like I have to go a little more over the top with my sometimes loud cheerleading to get kids to respond."
School officials also laud Wharton's efforts to assure the Catonsville High community that the music programs would flourish after his departure.
"He didn't just leave," said Assistant Principal Eric Eiswert. "He wanted things to continue, and he did a lot to make that happen."
Wharton marvels at the attention and accolades he's receiving at the close of his career, adding, "Man, I'm just doing my thing."