By Marlana Ward
Music class is often a much-anticipated part of the school day for students and many alumni of Johnson County Schools, one name comes to mind for music instruction. That name is Josephine Kerley. For many years Kerley has served as not only a music instructor for the school system but also as a contributor to local music within the area through church programs and community events.
Kerley and her husband Harry were born and raised in Carter County, Tennessee. When Harry was offered the position of office manager for the East Tennessee Production Credit Association, the couple began the transition to the place they now call home. “Harry commuted to work from our home in Hampton while our home was being built in Doe Valley,” Kerley remembered. “We and our two daughters, Mary Kathryn and Annette, moved here in 1968.”
The family quickly fell in love with their new community. “We loved our new location from the start,” shared Kerley. “We felt we had the best of conditions- living in a rural area and working in the city.” Kerley also quickly became a part of the music program in a local church. “At that time, I played piano for the Mountain City Presbyterian Church,” she added.
Kerley’s involvement with the Johnson County School System began in 1970 when she became a part-time music instructor at Mountain City Elementary. Though the school lacked an official classroom for music class, Kerley fondly remembers her time with the young students. “The PTA had a cart built to hold the resonator bells, autoharp, rhythm instruments, etc.,” she shared. “Truly the halls must have resounded with the sounds of music. My! How those students would sing!”
As the couple’s love for the area grew, so did their family. The family soon welcomed daughter Brenda and twin sons Tom and Don.
Upon the construction of the Johnson County Middle School, Kerley became a music and language arts instructor. It was also at this time that the program she is perhaps best known for was created, The Middle School Singers. “I will always treasure the opportunity I had to work with students and parents from every area in Johnson County,” said Kerley. “The administration, various businesses, and area clubs were so supportive.”
The program at the middle school was a large step in music instruction for the county as the department received a designated area for operation that included storage for instruments and equipment as well as an office.
Kerley has many precious memories from her time with the Middle School Singers including The National Christmas Pageant of Peace in Washington, D.C. In 1979, many years of participation with the Six Flags Choral Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, the annual Presidential Academic Fitness Award ceremonies, the local Cranberry Festival, and various parades and appearances made in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce.
The group of musicians from the middle school relied on help from the community to be able to travel to competitions and performances. “The Wednesday Music Club was always supportive both monetarily and with hands-on effort during the Bake-a-thons held at the Community Center,” Kerley remembered. “They not only baked goodies but came to help to take the incoming bids. Fran Atkinson, the owner of WMCT radio, helped us organize our Bake-a-thon and gave us not only airtime, but also staff like Jim Gilley who helped us get on the air and kept the program going with descriptions of the cakes and bidding.” These efforts by the community made it possible for the group to be awarded the middle school division Best in Class trophy twice at the Six Flags Choral Festival held at Omni International in downtown Atlanta. “It was all a testimony to what can be accomplished when we dream and work together to achieve a goal,” stated Kerley.
In addition to her involvement with the school’s music program, Kerley has also been a part of music in area churches and church events. One of her favorite community memories was being involved with The Living Christmas Tree program over the years. “The Living Christmas Tree was started by Sam Wagner, the Music Director at First Baptist Church at that time,” explained Kerley. “He was a talented musician and organizer, so a great deal of credit goes to him for making this community effort successful.”
Kerley went on to share how the program came about and its impact: “It was sponsored by First Baptist Church but was truly a community effort. The men volunteered to help with the construction of the frame which was designed and built by Kenneth Tolliver. Chicken wire was added, and many men and women helped with the stuffing of fresh greenery that brought a seasonal fragrance to the auditorium. I recall the sounds of saws, hammers, and laughter as the men volunteered their time to make the dream a reality. Voices from many area churches made up the ‘tree choir.’ We put aside denominational differences and came together realizing that Jesus is our common denominator. Our goal was to proclaim the story of Christ’s birth and to offer the plan of salvation to those who would respond. It was much more than a concert. Even today, people stop me from commenting to say how much they enjoyed the ‘tree’ and looked forward to attending each year.”
Not only has Kerley and her husband made a difference in the community, but also their children are also very involved with the community and youth. Annette teaches fourth grade at Mountain City Elementary and plays piano for First Christian Church. She and her husband Don have three children, Jake, Shane, and Stacy. Brenda teaches at Johnson County High School (JCHS) and plays piano at Nelson Chapel Baptist Church. She and her husband, David, have two children, Ashley and Nathan. Don is the head football coach at JCHS, and his family is members of Ackerson Creek Church of Christ. He and wife Heidi are parents to Samuel. Tom is an assistant coach with the Longhorns and assists with the youth at Calvary Baptist Church. He and his wife Donna have two children, Warren and Will. Though their daughter Kathy lives in Ft. Pierce, Florida, she is also involved with music and youth as she teaches in a middle school music department there. She and her husband Daniel have two sons, Ian and Justin. “Our greatest blessing is our children,” said Kerley. “We are pleased that they have chosen to remain in Johnson County and contribute to our community through their careers, churches, and their children.”
In addition to seeing her children grow and become part of the community, Kerley is also pleased to see former students becoming leaders in the area. “The greatest change we see in Johnson County is the many former students who are now leaders and professionals,” she shared. “It has been a privilege to see them become what they could only dream about when they were in my classroom.”
It is seeing her students branch out and reach their dreams that gives Kerley great optimism for our community’s future.
“My hope for the youth of our county is that we can continue to give them direction and purpose in life through involvement in church, family, school activities, and related extra-curricular activities so that they will, in turn, continue to make Johnson County the good place it is to live and bring up their families.”
Kerley’s love for music and people has made her not only an essential part of musical education history for the county but also an inspiration to students and community members. “No matter where I have taught in my teaching career,” she expressed, “I have found that music truly is the universal language bridging the differences. Rich or poor, young or old, English speaking or other, music unites.”