In October 2012, a beaming John R. Vannoni appeared on the steps of the Atlantic Building at Broad and Spruce Streets in Center City.
The former principal was there to mark the 30th anniversary of Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the magnet school he founded at the site in 1978 and that graduated its first class in 1982.
“It was the first day of a very long adventure, with work going on around us all the time, turning offices into studios,” he told KYW Newsradio’s Mike DeNardo.
Dr. Vannoni, 91, who guided the school to acclaim and spent 25 years as a teacher and administrator with the Philadelphia School District, died Tuesday, Oct. 24, of congestive heart failure at his home in Marlton. He had lived in Marlton since 1998 and in Cherry Hill since the early 1970s.
Born in Philadelphia, Dr. Vannoni graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1944 before being drafted into the Navy during World War II. He served in the South Pacific as a signalman and anti-aircraft gunner aboard the destroyer escort Tinsman.
After the war, Dr. Vannoni resumed his education, earning a bachelor’s degree in education from what is now West Chester University in 1951, and a master’s degree in English from Temple University in 1961. He completed master’s and doctoral degrees in education at Pennsylvania State University in 1974 and 1976.
While studying, he taught, starting in 1965 at various public schools in the city. He served as English department head at Benjamin Franklin High School from 1974 to 1978, when he accepted the challenge of setting up a magnet school for the arts.
Back then, the classrooms were so ramshackle that they were divided by chalkboards – the interior walls had yet to be rebuilt, Dr. Vannoni recalled. Another issue was that he had to assemble a staff and structure a curriculum in four months.
“They told him in November the school will open in February,” his son said. “It was so crazy the way it came together so quickly. A lot of teachers were made up of the all-star team of people he had worked with over the years at the district.”
The school went on to produce Boyz II Men, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots, and Tony Luke. In 1997, it moved to the former Ridgway Library at Broad and Christian Streets.
Dr. Vannoni, who considered the school his crowning achievement, poured his energy and ingenuity into the project before retiring in 1990.
Before teaching in Philadelphia, Dr. Vannoni spent time teaching English and coaching track in Miami. While there, he became a jazz disk jockey. “He was a huge jazz fan, buff, aficionado,” said his son Douglas.
Dr. Vannoni also enjoyed attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and reading the great works of English and American literature.
His son said Dr. Vannoni was very humble and egalitarian. “He had an eclectic group of very colorful people who were his friends,” his son said. “He introduced me to people of any shape, color or walk of life.”
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 58 years, Dolores Sklar Vannoni; daughter Belinda Little; and two grandchildren.
A life celebration is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Weston at Sagemore Clubhouse Dining Room, 2215 Hailey Dr., Marlton,
He donated his body to the University of Pennsylvania to be used in teaching.
Memorial donations may be made to the CAPA Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, at www.capa-foundation.org/.