Michael Combs never saw it coming. He had attended a few planning sessions for James A. Dick’s proposed Joy of Music School, and as is his nature, Michael asked good, thoughtful questions about how the School would function. But he never expected that at its first official board meeting, back in 1998, Mr. Dick would announce, “Our board president is going to be Michael Combs.”
“I gulped a little bit!” Michael says with a laugh, remembering that evening 20 years ago. “I mean, I was really supportive of Mr. Dick’s idea for the School, and I felt I couldn’t say no. But I was a Professor of Music at the University of Tennessee. I didn’t know anything about being a board president!”
Luckily he was surrounded by many people who did. Martha Weaver, director of development for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, encouraged him to set up board committees, he recalls. Bill Davis Sr., Mr. Dick’s lawyer, helped write the by-laws. CPA Jenny Hines handled most of the financial matters. “One of James Dick’s friends helped us get established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization,” Michael recalls.
Michael served two three-terms and rotated off the board. He came back a few years later as a board member (not the president) and served another six-year term. At the moment he’s in the third year of another six-year run.
Michael is our only current board member who was there at the beginning.
His biggest surprise over the years? “James Dick and the rest of us thought we would just be giving clarinets or violins to kids and showing them how to play,” Michael says. “We didn’t realize what important friends and role models the volunteer teachers would be.”
He notes that Executive Director Frank Graffeo—who joined soon after Michael stepped down as board president—has emphasized character growth as well as musical accomplishment. “He’s created a system where they earn prizes for being on time, bringing their materials and instruments, practicing, and showing kindness and respect to their teacher. All that is built into program now, but it really took us by surprise.”
And Michael’s greatest pleasure? “It’s always been the children,” he says. “I remember when the first one finished at the School and went to UT. He is Preston Sangster. He is a bassoon player, and he got a scholarship. We all turned around and said, ‘Look at what we’ve done!’ Those moments were very, very special for us.”