In 20 years with the school district, Lerch collected trophies, connected with students and colleagues alike, and energized an academic music culture with his supreme talent and devotion to the arts.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 16, 2023
On April 7, Collingswood High School (CHS) Band Director Joseph Lerch died, suddenly, of acute liver failure brought on by suspected food poisoning.
After 30 years of teaching, 20 of which were spent at CHS, Lerch’s passing leaves a tremendous hole in the district music program.
He was one of its most successful instructors, measured not only by the tournament victories of the Panther Marching Band, which won significant acclaim under his direction, but also by the formative relationships he cultivated with his fellow instructors, musicians, and the generations of students who learned from his example.
CHS Choir Director Cristin Charlton Introcaso taught alongside Lerch at Collingswood for 20 years. Both of them joined the district in 2003 from the Washington Township school district, where Charlton Introcaso was a student teacher, and Lerch had been the high-school band director.
She described their relationship as one of mutual reliance, whether supporting each other in the music department, performing together in district shows, arranging music, or finding the right touch to connect with a student.
“He was my right-hand person; I was his right-hand person,” Charlton Introcaso said. “He was first the [orchestra] pit director for a while; now I do the pit direction, and he’s played every year.
“You could just go, ‘Hey, I need a djembe for this choir piece,’ and he would come,” she said. “He always wanted to play. It didn’t matter what it was. For me, he was always playing percussion, and there’s just something special about looking across as a conductor and making eye contact with your percussionist; that is the driving force.”
Many students form connections with their coaches and elective teachers, but in the performing arts — band, orchestra, choir, theater — those bonds are thickened by the amount of time the people those groups spend together. Marching band, for example, rehearses four or five times weekly; students and supporting staff are together from July to Thanksgiving, plus hours in school concert band class.
“You can’t spend that much time together without making these lifelong connections,” Charlton Introcaso said. “There’s so many people who said, ‘He was the reason I came to school; going to band class meant that much to me,’” she remembered.
Lerch’s connection to the South Jersey marching band scene extended far beyond his role in Collingswood. His talent for arrangement had Lerch writing sheet music and marching drill for peers in other communities; he also nominated students for multi-community honors bands, and volunteered to help run auditions for those groups.
“He was always in the percussion room with a bunch of other teachers from South Jersey,” Charlton Introcaso said. “It’s a wide community that is in mourning for him. It’s not just Collingswood, or Haddon Township; it’s New Jersey.”
It could seem cliched to say that Lerch loved music, but “his entire life was music,” Charlton Introcaso said. As an amateur archivist, he digitized rare vinyl records for online streaming years before services like Pandora or Spotify existed. He was conversant in any style of music, and anything could be heard in his band room, from classical to rock to jazz.
A voracious reader and crossword enthusiast, Lerch had both a wicked sense of humor and no shortage of opinions; yet, he maintained an ability to relate to anyone, Charlton Introcaso said.
“I think he was really good at meeting people where they are, and he would just talk,” she said. “He would get in discussions with kids the way he would get into discussions with adults, and he wanted to hear their opinions.
“[Lerch] had a way of being able to connect on a human level that then [students] would trust him,” Charlton Introcaso said. “He would have kids come to him with things that they didn’t tell any other adult, and he would be able to help. Not everybody can do that.”
‘Those who stay will be champions’
Collingswood Middle School (CMS) Choir Director C.J. Hartung also knew Lerch for 20 years, six of them as a music student.
Hartung joined the CHS marching band as a middle-schooler in 2003, and was its drum major as a high-school junior and senior.
During college, Hartung returned to work with the band part-time, and served as Assistant Marching Band Director from 2016 through 2019; a post he only surrendered for want of time amid his pursuit of a master’s degree.
When Lerch came to Collingswood in 2003, “the marching band was pretty rough,” Hartung said.
But by 2004, the Panther Marching Band had won the United States Scholastic Band Association (USSBA) New Jersey state championship.
The Panthers repeated in 2005, and returned to the USSBA National Championships in 2006, 2007, and 2009. In 2010, the band won Chapter One championships in the 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015 Southern New Jersey Tournament of Bands, as well as Tournament of Bands state championships in 2012 and 2013, plus the 2013 Tournament of Bands Atlantic Coast Championship. In 2019, the Panthers posted a 92.82 at the 2019 Atlantic Coast Championships, the highest score in CHS history.
“[Lerch] was super-competitive, and he took it super-seriously,” Hartung said. “That’s just how he did things. He wanted to win, and he knew what to do to win, and he fought for it.”
Those victories were Lerch’s bone fides as he worked to recruit marching band members from among a limited pool of band students in Collingswood. Soon enough, the district was building trophy cases to house the hardware from all those victories; even more spill into the band room today, unhoused in the cabinets for want of space.
As the list of titles grew, Lerch posted them on the band room door, beneath his favorite saying: “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.”
“[Lerch] was all about community, and he was all about pride,” Hartung said. “He had the most pride for any ensemble I’ve ever seen.
“I knew I had some sort of skill or talent for music, but when we won that championship, that was when I knew this is what I want to do,” he said.
Hartung said his perspective on Lerch shifted from “the man, the myth, the legend,” as a student, to a colleague who demonstrated the ability to give students the individual responsibility to succeed.
“Through that experience of trusting us with the program, it allowed me to really hone in my teaching skills and think about who I am and how I teach,” Hartung said. “He had so much love for what he did, and so much pride; he was always bragging on his program and his students.
Beyond celebrating his students’ achievements, Lerch also set them up for success, Hartung said. He had a knack for understanding the individual abilities and limitations of his players, and often re-arranged the music he offered them to match the abilities of the group.
“He was always good at tailor-making parts,” Hartung said. “Collingswood is such a small school; we have kids who have been playing instruments for 10 years, and others who’re just picking it up. He was really good at catering to the individual student.”
It was always, ‘What’s best for the kid?’
Lori Ludewig became the CHS Assistant Band Director in 2020; although she, of all Lerch’s colleagues in the department, had the least experience with him, he quickly made her feel welcome.
“He was just so accepting of me as a teacher,” she said.
“I didn’t need to prove anything to him. I didn’t need to talk about how long I’d been teaching.
“I didn’t need to talk about my background,” Ludewig said.
“It was an automatic trust that you are a professional, you know what you’re doing, you know how to achieve what you need to achieve.”
Lerch “practically always had music playing,” Ludewig recalled, and was such a gifted arranger and transcriber that he could hold a conversation, or listen to different music, while writing charts.
“I don’t know how he did it,” she said. “I’d have to stop writing my e-mails so we can have that conversation, and he’d be still working all the time.”
The two often conferred about their students, and how best to reach them, and Lerch always had a keen insight born out of a genuine affection for the children in his program, she said.
“That was one of the big things about him,” Ludewig said. “He loved all of his kids; all of them, hands down. I know that because we talked about them. Every single one, it was always, ‘What’s best for the kid?’ He knew that some kids needed the band program, and he wanted to do whatever he could to keep these kids in the program, or to get them there.”
‘It’s a huge hole’
When he was hired in Collingswood seven years ago, CMS Orchestra Director Mario DeSantis said that Lerch’s welcome helped overcome his apprehension of joining a new district.
“I was coming from a district that was extremely conservative, and as an out, gay teacher, I didn’t really feel too comfortable [there],” DeSantis said.
“But Joe had a huge progress flag in his room, and it was one of the experiences I had that made me very comfortable. He made it very clear that everybody’s input was valued.”
Like Ludewig, DeSantis said that he’s experienced some prove-it culture when joining a new music department. Lerch, however, held to none of that. Upon introducing DeSantis to the crowd at his first concert in the district, Lerch made him feel warmly welcomed.
“He celebrated me in a way that was like, ‘Hey Collingswood, this is our new family member. Let’s watch out for this kid, because he’s going to take care of your kids.’
“I felt such a lift of weight from the way that he spoke that made me so proud,” DeSantis said.
When DeSantis was completing his doctoral degree, Lerch was “always not just willing, but excited” to help with his coursework, particularly jazz theory and band charting.
Upon hearing of Lerch’s passing, DeSantis led the charge among the music department staff to help fill in the gaps of his absence. Together, the teachers have all pledged to sacrifice their planning periods for the remainder of the school year to teach Lerch’s classes, so that the students will have a continuity of experience.
“That is the first thought and commitment that I wanted to make to parents immediately upon hearing of his death,” DeSantis said. “I cannot imagine walking into his classroom Monday morning as a student to see a long-term sub; a strange face who may not be able to help them continue on with their concert season.
“They still have concerts; they still have competitions,” he said. “There were many times during our breaks where [Lerch] would be in the building when others were away on vacation. It’s a huge hole.”
‘For him, life was art’
Robin Lerch met her husband, Joe, when she was a 14-year-old in Paulsboro, and the two were together ever since, rearing two children, Christopher and Jordaine, in Gibbstown.
For as much as Joe loved his family, Robin said she knew music was his all-consuming passion.
To wit: when Jordaine was born on the same day as a marching band competition, Joe greeted his wife and new baby in the hospital — and then left to make the band’s performance that evening.
“I knew that when I married him, I shared him with the world,” Robin said.
“He was so effective with what he did that this was his legacy.
“My legacy was to support his legacy,” she said. “I was proud to be a part of his legacy.”
With Joe committed to the long hours of music education, Robin began a career as a sign language interpreter so that she could retain the flexibility of a self-employment work schedule for their children.
“As his wife, it was hard to keep up with him, [but] we were a real good complement to each other,” Robin said. “He was just brilliant. I always told him, ‘I was so proud of you.’ For him, life was art.”
Joe “had the brain and the ambition” to be excellent, Robin said. At an age “when everybody’s so distracted by inconsequence,” she said “there were not enough hours in the day for everything that he wanted to do.
“He was a brilliant musician, but music was a vehicle; he really just sold himself,” she said. “He was knowledgeable about so many areas. He was well-read. He just loved life.”
In his final days, even as he was ill in bed, Robin said Joe continued to put affairs in order for his students.
“The health issues he had were incredible, but he still had his head together,” she said. “I think he was trying to get stuff done, because when he didn’t get stuff done, it meant some kid would not be able to take part in honors band, or some check didn’t go somewhere, or the bus company didn’t get called, and the kids wouldn’t have a ride to a competition.”
Among his effects, Robin said she found some of her husband’s writing, which she believed were notes for new instructors coming to work with the students.
“He was talking about staying positive, being complimentary; don’t demean; make them feel special, and that was his way,” she said.
“It was more about serving people as opposed to having the right dogma,” Robin said. “He connected with everybody.
“I really admired him, and loved him, and I’m really going to miss him,” she said.
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