It is nearly impossible to think about Polk State College’s Music Program without also thinking of John Anderson. He served the College for 20 years and saw the Music Program through exponential growth and success.
Polk State is mourning the loss of Anderson, who retired in August 2020 and passed away on November 15, 2021. He was 66.
“He has been such a vital part of our music community in Polk County. For as long as I have known him and much earlier than that, he left such a broad impact on so many different levels,” said Don West, Polk State Professor of Music, who knew Anderson for more than 30 years. “John ‘walked the walk’ and had no false pretenses. If you knew John, you knew exactly what he was about in the classroom and in the community. You knew the quality of his character and of his work. He was a leader in Polk County and across the state, and he will be missed.”
Anderson was a fourth-generation Polk County native who graduated from Bartow High School in 1973. He achieved a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Florida Southern College and a master’s in Choral Conducting and Literature from the University of South Florida.
He served Polk County Public Schools for 28 years, including Mulberry Middle, Auburndale Middle, Jewett Academy, Bartow High, and Lake Region High. Under his direction, choral programs achieved success at the local, state, and national levels, and he received Teacher of the Year recognition at both Bartow and Lake Region high schools.
“John ‘walked the walk’ and had no false pretenses. If you knew John, you knew exactly what he was about in the classroom and in the community. You knew the quality of his character and of his work. He was a leader in Polk County and across the state, and he will be missed.”
Other highlights from Anderson’s career include leading a performance at Carnegie Hall and conducting the Disney Candlelight Cast Choir.
He joined Polk State in 2000 as an adjunct instructor and became a full-time faculty member in 2005. He was the Music Program’s only permanent instructor at that time and worked diligently to recruit 16 adjuncts. The program grew from 15 students to nearly 70, and Anderson held positions including Coordinator of the Music Department and Director of Choral Activities during his tenure.
“When you see all his accomplishments encapsulated into a few short paragraphs, it is important to understand the incredible wealth of knowledge he brought to the classroom,” West explained. “As an organist, a pianist, a singer, a director – he fused all of that into his teaching.”
And his passion for music education included an innate drive to help his students reach their greatest potential.
“It was in his heart to give all he could to his students, to his colleagues, and to the profession,” West added. “He was here on those mornings when he spent all night ill and being medically treated. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. John could not not do it. It was important to him to be here with his students and colleagues.”
“He was the type of mentor and instructor who made you want to do your best because he gave his best.”
Michelle Manzi, Polk State Professor of Music, noted Anderson’s strong rapport with students and “how big his heart was for them.”
“He taught with such passion and compassion,” she said. “He set the standard very high, but he never left students behind.”
Whether it was his generosity with his time, providing students with the extra support they needed outside of class, or connecting them to resources such as scholarships and financial aid, Anderson always put students first.
Manzi and West both credited Anderson for his steadfast support of his colleagues as well.
“He always got us the support, resources, and exposure we needed,” Manzi said. “He had genuine love and care for people, and his faith drove that. He emulated and lived his faith without ever having to say a word about it. It was just evident in his actions that he was an honorable, intelligent, talented, and caring man.”
“He taught with such passion and compassion. He set the standard very high, but he never left students behind.”
“He was a great mentor to me,” added West. “He was kind, caring, and genuine, and it was relationships like that with John that bring you strength, encouragement, and inspiration.”
Anderson was selected by his fellow music educators to direct the first-ever All-County Men’s Chorus as well as the Florida Vocal Association’s Choral Directors’ Chorus.
During his tenure at the College, Anderson also received the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) Excellence Award for demonstrating an outstanding commitment and contribution to his students, and the Polk State College Foundation’s Mid-Florida Credit Union Endowed Teaching Chair Award for teaching excellence.
In 2013, the City of Winter Haven presented Anderson with a proclamation for his work in music education and a Fine Arts Service Award from the J. Owens Academy of Fine Arts. He was honored in front of an audience of more than 300.
“Music has brought me such joy, and to be able to share it with others every day, I can’t imagine a better, more rewarding career,” Anderson shared when he received the award. “To be honored beyond that, it’s more than I could ask for but also deeply appreciated.”
“If I can get someone to like music even a little bit, then I think I’ve done some good,” he said.
In lieu of flowers, Anderson’s family has requested donations be made in his honor to support students and music education. Donations can be made online at foundation.polk.edu.