By Jeb Bing
When John Whitney packs up his office next month as he retires as principal of Pleasanton Middle School, he'll be sure to take the Gold Record and guitar that are the highlights of parallel interests he has in music along with education. In Pleasanton, he's known as the dedicated administrator from his years at PMS and three years before that as principal at Donlon Elementary. Yet on the rhythm and blues circuit, he's the lead guitar player with Annie Sampson and her band, playing weekend gigs along the California coast and at well-known local clubs such as Half Moon Bay Brewery and Armandos in Martinez. Over the years, after he graduated from Cal State Hayward (now East Bay) and before he settled down to a day job as a teacher at Wood Middle School in Alameda, Whitney played and wrote the music for bands on stages at county fairs, festivals and even the Monterey Jazz Festival. He missed out on Woodstock but would head there in a minute if there's ever a Woodstock II.
The students at Pleasanton Middle School know they have a principal with great musical talent. Along with three others on the faculty, he started a Rock & Roll Club at PMS 13 years ago when he became principal. Every Friday, the teacher/principal combo belts out songs at 7:30 a.m. to welcome everyone to campus, and it's quite a scene with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders dancing, singing and applauding. The group also entertains at assemblies and may even take the stage during promotion exercises June 13 when eighth graders and their families celebrate the move to high school.
Whitney, who holds a degree in biology, spent time in his early years with his father Robert (now deceased), who taught physics at Cal State Hayward for 30 years and was a gifted teacher with a doctorate degree. John Whitney marveled at his father's rapport with his students. As the fast and tiring pace of playing multiple venues on the West Coast grew old, he seized on his father's success and signed on as a science teacher at Wood Middle School in Alameda. At the same time, he returned to college for an administration credential.
Pleasanton hired him as a dean at PMS, a position now called vice principal, and after a year or so sent him to Donlon Elementary as its principal. Whitney came back to PMS when the top job opened there and has been in charge of the school ever since. He uses the word "dynamic" to described middle school students because "it's such a dynamic age as they move from childhood as young sixth-graders to beginning adulthood as eighth-grade teenagers. He knows them all, even remembering their names when they come back as parents to enroll their own children. In fact, five teachers now at PMS attended the school, themselves, and are now teaching alongside several teachers they had as students.
With his teaching and administrative years behind him, Whitney plans to become more active again on the music circuit. A look at Annie Sampson's band schedule this summer will keep him busy if he signs on to the seven performances she has scheduled through Aug. 2. They include the Iridium on Broadway in New York City on July 16-17, the Iron Horse in North Hampton, Mass., on July 14, and, closer to home, Freight and Salvage on Addison Street in Berkeley tonight and again at Armandos in Martinez on Aug. 2. Even as popular as Sampson's six-member band has become, another Gold Record is unlikely. Whitney got his in the early 1980s when one of his songs was on a best-selling, long-playing album. Although some bands still record on vinyl, Sampson's recordings are on CDs and even those are giving way to digital. Top artists don't pick up Gold Records anymore, some don't even get credit for what they produce.
Whitney says he'll pick up the pace as retirement sinks in, but he also plans to spend more time with his wife Liz, who teaches at Piedmont High School, and their two sons: Ren, a sixth-grader at Piedmont Middle School near where his mother works, and Colin, a junior at Foothill High School.
When asked about playing the Alameda County Fair or at Pleasanton's Concert in the Park, Whitney said, "You've given me two great ideas, maybe I'll see you there."