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Roberta Guaspari, ’69, unveils new scholarship
Friday, May 09, 2008

Roberta Guaspari with Fredonia professors

SUNY Fredonia alumna Roberta Guaspari, ’69, thanks Drs. Homer Garretson (front) and Louis Richardson, now faculty emeriti, for their years of support by announcing a new School of Music scholarship in their names.

Guaspari, who went on to found a violin instruction program within the East Harlem School District in New York City, was the subject of the 1999 movie, “Music of the Heart.” Her character was portrayed by Meryl Streep, who earned an academy award nomination for her performance.

Fredonia, N.Y. — May 9, 2008 — SUNY Fredonia’s School of Music welcomed home one of its most successful alumna on Friday afternoon to not only give this year’s Convocation Address to its faculty and students (news release), but also make a surprise announcement which will positively impact Fredonia’s students forever.

Ms. Guaspari — whose remarkable career was the subject of the film, “Music of the Heart,” featuring an Academy award-nominated performance by Meryl Streep in her role as Roberta — announced that a new scholarship has been created to honor two Fredonia faculty emeriti, Dr. Homer Garretson and Dr. Louis Richardson, for their tireless dedication to music education.

The scholarship fund gift comes during the Fredonia College Foundation's "Doors to Success" capital campaign.

Initiated by Guaspari, the scholarship is the result of a letter-writing campaign to former students, faculty and friends who collectively contributed to a fully endowed scholarship which presently stands at nearly $14,000. At least $500 will be given annually to students within the School of Music’s string instrument areas of study, although the exact criteria of the award will be established by Drs. Garretson and Richardson, as a part of the honor which was kept secret from its honorees until the convocation address.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to help create a lasting legacy to these two deserving men and celebrate the positive impression they left on so many students’ lives,” Guaspari said. “This is a wonderful way to thank these individuals who played such an important role in my life, and helped me recognize the full potential I could achieve in my career.”

Dr. Garretson was Guaspari’s teacher and mentor when she was a student. Although she never had a private lesson prior to enrolling at Fredonia, Dr. Garretson observed that she was well coached and well prepared. He served as a professor of violin and music history at the School of Music from 1959-1987. Dr. Richardson served as a professor of cello from 1958-1987, and the two contemporaries formed a strong and lasting friendship through their combined passions for teaching and music.

“Roberta Guaspari has given so much of herself to create the memorable moment we are sharing today,” said SUNY Fredonia President Dennis L. Hefner. “Her level of public service, social consciousness, and intense student support has been well documented, including a major motion picture about her struggles and successes. She has achieved a remarkable level of success since graduating from Fredonia, and continues to generate tremendous energy, kindness and foresight. I greatly admire her many accomplishments.”

Guaspari’s career began in earnest in 1980 when, following a divorce, she moved to New York City with her two sons and 50 violins she purchased while living in Greece while her husband was stationed in the military. On the advice of a friend, she interviewed with a principal in the East Harlem School District and convinced her to let her start up a program to teach violin to her grade school students.

As one might imagine, Guaspari was met with tremendous challenges along the way, including remarks from parents and coworkers who couldn’t see the use or relevancy of violin instruction to their children or culture. And of course, there were all of those students who didn’t think the violin was cool, or whose friends made fun of them (or worse) for taking her lessons. But she fought through all of those roadblocks, and within a few years, her program became so successful that they needed to install a lottery system to fill the limited slots available.

After overcoming all those odds and developing several professional violinists during her first decade, she suddenly faced one more unexpected challenge: the district was cutting her budget and eliminating the program. But like all good movies, this had a happy ending, as parents and community leaders helped her organize a benefit concert in Carnegie Hall, with the likes of Itzhak Pearlman, Isaac Stern and Mark O’Connor not only performing, but playing side-by-side with Guaspari’s current and former students. In the process, she appeared on “The Today Show,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” “Oprah,” “Letterman” and many other programs, ultimately raising enough money to salvage the program and keep it running in perpetuity. 

Then Roberta’s story caught the attention of Miramax films, which released “Music of the Heart” in 1999, gaining still greater attention for her program. In addition to the movie’s success, its title track was nominated for a Grammy and adopted as the official anthem for VH1’s well-publicized “Save the Music” program. It was sung by Gloria Estefan, who also played a role in the film.

Today the program, now known as “Opus 118: Harlem School of Music” (www.opus118.org), has become one of the greatest sources of pride within the East Harlem district, with Roberta still at the helm as Master Teacher and Artistic Director of Performance. It has enhanced the lives of tens of thousands of students over the years, and today has the ambitious goal of reaching 5,000 students annually through its in-school, after-school and other music programs.

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