Students honor 100-year-old teacher

It isn't unusual for students to remember the impact a teacher had on them well into adulthood, but on Saturday, many students of former Baltimore music teacher Lucille Marcus Brooks had an unusual opportunity to tell her — more than a half-century after they sat in her classroom.

About 150 people, including many former students, packed Union Baptist Church to celebrate 100 years of Brooks' life, three-quarters of which she has devoted to grooming some of the region's finest musicians.

Brooks' students who graduated from Dunbar, Carver and Lake Clifton high schools have continued her legacy of music in more than a half-dozen city churches, Baltimore County schools and internationally renowned symphony orchestras, grateful that she has lived to see it.

"She was a top-notch musician who gave me the best of what I took with me," recalled Audrey McCallum, a 75-year-old pianist whom Brooks trained in the 1950s at then-Dunbar Junior/Senior High School.

McCallum went on to be the first African-American to attend and graduate from the Peabody Preparatory School and was one of the first to attend the Peabody Conservatory.

"You don't forget people who have helped you to get to this point, and you usually don't get to tell them," said McCallum. "I'm so glad that I get to tell her, tell everyone that."

But Brooks — a spirited woman who "put on her face" before an interview and silenced anyone who attempted to interject in her recollections with a piercing stare — remembers every success of her most passionate students and every detail about how her own passion developed.

Brooks was born in East Baltimore in 1912, and by age 13, had become fascinated by the organ. She graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, where she was a freshman following in the footsteps of seniors like Cab Calloway.

She obtained her bachelor's from Morgan College (now University), and went back to obtain her master's along with her 75-year-old daughter, Lucille, who also retired as a music teacher from the city school system.

The family is full of educators: the niece she raised and her grandson are both city schools principals. She knows how scarce music education has become and has much to say about it.

"I think it's atrocious that they've cut all of the music programs," she said. "The students need that outlet."

Her first teaching position was at Dunbar High School, a time she reflects fondly upon. "I loved Dunbar so much that I started the first little boys choir," Brooks said. "I didn't have to worry about them coming to school; they got there at 7 in the morning. My students loved me and I loved them."

The stars of the boys choir not only were recognized around the state, but some would go on to become world-class vocalists.

"We took first place wherever we went to sing," said the Rev. Jimmie MacDonald, a celebrated vocalist who has sung with Billy Graham and in 21 countries. "Every time I go into a concert hall or sing in an international orchestra, it's because this one little lady had me sing 'Good News' in falsetto."

She then went on to teach at Carver, taking students who saw her as a mother figure with her.

"When she went to Carver, I left Dunbar High and went with her," said Marie Payne Davis, 75, whom Brooks took under her wing, sewing her clothes, taking her to school and giving her odd jobs to earn money. "I just thought that where she was, I was safe and everything would be fine."

She retired from Lake Clifton in 1986. She ended her career in the classroom at Coppin State College, and went on to give private lessons until December of last year.

Her students who benefited from private lessons are now affecting other children's lives.

Jason Ambush, who has taught music at Deer Park Magnet School in Baltimore County for 10 years, said that Brooks' lessons still touch hundreds of students every day.

She never taught him in the classroom, though her daughter taught him piano in middle school. When he went to high school, Brooks picked him up every day for four years and gave him music lessons for free.

Today, he said he sees music reverting back to what his teacher taught him decades ago.

"How I teach my students is what she taught me and how she insists I instruct," he said with a chuckle. "She taught me about having feeling and emotion in my music: sharing yourself and what you love about that song with your students and the audience — and making sure they are listening to you."