Rita Simó, a former nun who used $630 and a donated piano to start the People’s Music School in a tiny former beauty salon in Uptown, died Tuesday at 86.
Since it opened in 1976, the school has given free music lessons to tens of thousands of students and expanded from its current base at 931 W. Eastwood Ave. to also offer satellite programs at three Chicago schools.
Ms. Simó, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, died in her sleep at her home in Uptown, according to the school.
“She just attended a board meeting in July” via Zoom, said Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, the school’s president and artistic director. “Rita was a defining force — a pioneer of social justice and equity who never stopped fighting for what our children deserve. . .Rita epitomized the love, truth and power of music.”
She was born in San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, where she learned to play piano as a child. At 16, she came to America to study on a music scholarship at the renowned Juilliard School in New York. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and later a doctorate in music arts from Boston University.
“The last year at Juilliard, we gave concerts in the schools. That’s when I realized, in this country if you don’t have money, you don’t have music lessons,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997.
“People shouldn’t be ignored,” she said in another Sun-Times interview, “because they don’t have the money.”
Her school’s students have been taught or mentored by master teachers including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and jazz saxophone great Frank Catalano.
Some alums have gone on to major in music in college. One played in a military band at the White House. Another, Alan Pierson, is a renowned conductor. Others have taken what they learned in those lessons to find success in a wide range of other fields.
Ms. Simó told the Sun-Times that part of the reason she became a nun was “so that I could have a music school.”
After researching different religious orders, she joined the Sinsinawa Dominicans because of the order’s social justice work and its focus on the arts, according to the Chicago Catholic newspaper.
She spent more than a decade as a nun and taught music at Rosary College.
“But when she came to the conclusion that she would always be teaching college classes and not have an opportunity to start her school, she walked away,” Chicago Catholic wrote.
After settling in Uptown in the 1970s, she attended mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church. She wasn’t impressed with the music and told the pastor so.
“She told him the music was weak, especially at the Spanish Mass, but not to worry because she was going to take it over,” Tomás Bissonnette, her husband since 1978, told Chicago Catholic. “And she did.”
She paid volunteers “food and beer” to clean up layers of hair spray on the walls of the old beauty parlor that became the original site of the school, according to Kemper Florin, its development director.
And when an early benefactor donated a baby grand piano for the People’s Music School, she shouted, “A baby! We’re going to have a baby!”
Ms. Simó networked and built an infrastructure for the People’s Music School with grants and fundraising and mandatory volunteer work by students and parents. Former Chicago first lady Maggie Daley championed the school’s mission. Its board members are a cross-section of Chicago industry, including members from prominent law firms, investment companies, insurance and big accounting firms.
Supporters say the school keeps kids out of trouble and improves their chances to stay in school and graduate.
Students — ranging from kindergarten through high school — are admitted by lottery. They learn music theory and a variety of instruments. The training is classical, but they play all kinds of music.
The music school has expanded with programs at Bronzeville, Hibbard and Lara elementary schools.
“Do you know whether you know how to swim unless you jump in the water? That’s my philosophy. You jump in, you try,” she said in a Roadtrip Nation documentary.
Ms. Simó is survived by her husband and her brother Alfredo. Funeral arrangements are pending.