John D. Hontz, 57, of West Chester, an influential educator who built the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District's music department and ran the highly touted Strath Haven High School Marching Band for 34 years, died Friday, June 23, of a heart attack while on the links with his oldest son at Ingleside Golf Club in Thorndale.
He was pronounced dead at Brandywine Hospital, his family said.
Mr. Hontz was such a high-profile figure at Strath Haven that principal MaryJo Yannacone called his sudden death "a devastating loss" for the school community.
"Despite our collective grief," she said, "we have a sense of gratitude for being part of a school that included a man who was so generous of his time and talents, so compassionate in his leadership of students and staff, and so dedicated and warm in supporting our entire student body."
Known to all as "Jack," Mr. Hontz was an indefatigable teacher and leader.
A 1978 graduate of Newton (N.J.) High School, where his father, of the same name, was the music director, Mr. Hontz earned a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in music performance from West Chester University.
In 1983, the newly formed Wallingford-Swarthmore School District hired him to create a department for musical performance at Strath Haven and serve as the district's fine arts department chairman.
He embraced the assignments with energy and enthusiasm, leading the school's orchestra and its standout 400-member marching band. He touched many lives. "He was a mentor, friend, colleague, and inspiration to us all, and in him, we witnessed the very best a person can be," Yannacone wrote.
Mr. Hontz in turn was grateful to the school system for giving him "the opportunity to do what he loved every day," his family wrote.
At the outset, the school decided not to create a marching band for inter-school competition, and that opened the way for many young people to participate. The first year, Mr. Hontz knocked on doors to entice students to join, and 35 responded. Eventually, a third of the high school's students became involved, and it took 12 school buses to transport them to away football games.
The band marched each year in Media's Halloween and Veterans Day parades, and performed twice at Eagles games.
In 2013, the high school's music program under Mr. Hontz's direction was a semifinalist in the Grammy Foundation's "Signature Schools" program – one of 130 schools nationwide to be singled out.
His efforts were not reserved to the high school, though. For nearly 30 years, he served as musical adviser to the Princeton University Band, which he enjoyed enormously, his family said. For 22 years, he also was conductor of the Chester County Concert Band.
His family said he mentored generations of student teachers from West Chester and Temple Universities. Last year, West Chester University honored him with its Distinguished Music Alumnus Award. He was active in the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, serving as District 12 president, and enjoying the group's music festivals.
Mr. Hontz found time to be an athletic coach. He spent 15 years volunteering as assistant coach, coach, and president of the Great Valley Little League. "That experience gave him the opportunity to employ his keen eye for sports strategy and his instinctive teaching skills to encourage his players," his family wrote in a tribute.
His coaching of the 2014 All-Star Senior League Team, which included his youngest son, to the Pennsylvania State Championship, was a cherished family memory.
He was a devoted fan of the New York Yankees – having gone to Yankee Stadium as a boy — and of Pennsylvania State University football, West Chester University sports, Princeton University football and basketball, and Strath Haven football.
Mr. Hontz was a member of Grove United Methodist Church in West Chester, where he was able to share his music and assist in worship.
He was a member and past president of the Rotary Club of Media. His family said that he utilized his musical ensembles to promote community fellowship, local events and parades.
"Jack was an extraordinary friend," his family said. "His gregarious personality sought out, made, and nurtured fierce friendships in every situation."
He loved sports, music and food "in equally unbounded measure," his relatives said.
He cherished vacations in Vermont with family, and found inner peace on the golf course, where, during a round with his son, his heart gave out, his family wrote.
He is survived by his wife of 28 years, Cindy Healy; children Jack, David, Matthew, and Emily; his parents, Jack and Elizabeth Hontz; two brothers; and nieces and nephews.
A public visitation will be held on Friday, June 30, from 1 to 6 p.m. at Strath Haven High School's George H. Slick Auditorium, 205 S. Providence Rd., Wallingford. A memorial service will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 1, at Grove United Methodist Church, 490 Boot Rd., West Chester. Interment is private.