Eating dinner in an Ocean City restaurant eight years ago, James Wharton had an inspiration that would change Maryland high school music.
"I was sitting listening to the Baltimore Trinidad and Tobago Steel Drum Band perform, and I thought, 'This would be perfect for my students,' " said the Catonsville High School music teacher. "So I went and learned about steel drum bands, applied for a grant from the Baltimore County public schools, and then started the first high school steel drum band in Maryland."
Other middle and high schools across the state have followed Catonsville's example and begun steel drum bands -- and it was for that type of instruction and leadership that Wharton was named yesterday Baltimore County's 1998-1999 Teacher of the Year.
"He really inspires his students to love music," said Catonsville junior Ira Pfeifer, 16, who plays cello in the school's orchestra. "I can think of dozens of students who have pursued music both in school and outside of school because of Mr. Wharton."
Wharton received his award in a ceremony at the school system's Greenwood headquarters, during which the county's three Teacher-of-the-Year finalists were honored.
The other two finalists were Elizabeth Ceanfaglione, a third-grade teacher at Stoneleigh Elementary, and Garry Smith, a physical education teacher at Oliver Beach Elementary.
For the first time, county school officials persuaded local companies to donate two prizes to the winner. Wharton received a Power Macintosh G3 from Apple Computers and Bell Educational, and local Toyota dealers are giving him free use of a Toyota Corolla for a year.
"I am very happy, and I am also humbled," Wharton said. "We have a tradition of excellence in Baltimore County, and every teacher deserves this kind of recognition."
A graduate of the University of Maryland College Park with a master's degree in music theory from Temple University, Wharton has taught in Baltimore County for 23 years -- 13 years at Dulaney High School and the last 10 years at Catonsville.
Wharton and the county's 1997-1998 teacher of the year -- Diane Richmond of Owings Mills Elementary School -- are Catonsville High graduates.
Catonsville Principal Robert Tomback likens Wharton to the inspirational music teacher played in the film "Mr. Holland's Opus" by Richard Dreyfuss -- "except Mr. Holland could have learned a thing or two from Jim Wharton."
"He knows about all kinds of music -- from classical to calypso," Tomback said.
After rehearsing with the orchestra and taking the musicians through a tough piece of music, Wharton often visits with his students at a local coffee shop. He is known for attending students' post-performance parties -- and even dropped in on one student's 16th birthday party recently.
"He's just a great teacher who really cares about us," said Catonsville sophomore Carrie Lippy, 15, who is an all-state violinist. "No matter what your problems, he's always there to listen and help."
Wharton sees such actions as crucial to his mission of inspiring and guiding his students.
"We all have the potential to be Teacher of the Year for someone in our classes," Wharton said. "That's the most important thing we can do."
Wharton moves on to Maryland's Teacher of the Year Competition, which will announce a winner in the fall.
Pub Date: 5/21/98