This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Garry Rhodeside, a retired teacher from Northeast High School, always had a great affection for 1960s rhythm and blues singer Otis Redding. In fact, he was nicknamed Otis in high school because of his love for the music. He danced to Redding’s tunes and sang along with the lyrics. So, when Redding’s career was cut short by a plane crash on his way to a concert in 1967, Rhodeside felt the loss as much as any fan and he never let go of the memory.
Years later, Rhodeside made it a mission to keep both the man and the music alive by setting up a scholarship program for music and performing arts students called the Otis Redding Memorial Scholarship.
“To have a scholarship named after your childhood hero, that’s pretty cool,” said Rhodeside, 62.
Rhodeside, who taught at Northeast High for 18 years, said the idea to set up a memorial scholarship program came to him while he was in charge of the school’s community service program. During that time, he said, he was inspired to give back to the students.
“I got a chance to meet some students through the program that I never had in class that impressed me,” he said.
Rhodeside launched the scholarship program in 1999, putting up $1,000 of his own money to fund it. One of the first recipients was 2001 Northeast High graduate Christina Holmes. Now 34, Holmes is a branch manager at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and she said that receiving the award helped her pay off her college loans and “gave me a jumpstart with my career.”
“[Rhodeside is] a great guy who did a wonderful thing for students,” she said.
The scholarships – which are in the amount of $1,000 each – are awarded to graduating seniors and can be used to cover the costs of books and help with college tuition. Students are eligible for the awards based on their GPA, community service work, letters of recommendation, and writing three essays, one of which has to be about Otis Redding.
To date, students in the program have received $26,000 in scholarships, with $24,000 going to seniors at Northeast High and $2,000 to seniors at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School. The funds that go into the scholarship program come from money that Rhodeside contributes and donations made through the Philadelphia Foundation, a partner in the program. The foundation manages and administers the program by accepting donations and releasing funds for the scholarships. Rhodeside said that as long as donations to the scholarship fund are being made, the program can continue.
Betsy Anderson, the foundation’s communications director, said that the program is great.
“Like many of our donors, Garry is very passionate,” she said, “and he has an affinity for Otis Redding and wants to perpetuate the students that are interested in music to follow their academic dreams.”
Rhodeside said that he wants the scholarship program to keep growing. Though Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter is the only Philadelphia school now participating in it, Rhodeside said he has been pitching it to various other schools, both District and charter. Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter is one of four String Theory Schools in the city.
“[Giving out the scholarships] has been a wonderful experience and I hope to continue my relationship with Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter and hopefully other schools in the future,” he said.
When Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter celebrated its first graduating class in June, the Otis Redding Memorial Scholarship was awarded to two students, Sanniyah Bey and Catrina Blanton.
“[It] helped me connect to [Redding] on a level that I understand, about how his family and the way he grew up was similar to mine,” said Bey, who will attend the University of the Arts in the fall.
“It’s really inspired me to never give up on creating music and putting my word out there like he did,” she said.
Blanton, who will attend the Los Angeles Film School in the fall, said she was surprised when she learned she would be awarded the scholarship. She is moved by Rhodeside’s commitment to this endeavor.
“Being selected made me feel more confident about my writing,” Blanton said.
“Mr. Rhodeside really cares about helping people and he really inspired me to go out and do something that you love and care about it. You should never get tired of something you love.”
After 18 years of distributing scholarships to students interested in the arts, it seems as if Rhodeside will never get tired of his passion for music or for the man who, he says, has made it all worthwhile.
“If I live to be 100 years old, I’ll still be dancing to Otis Redding’s music,” he said.
Donations to the Otis Redding Memorial Scholarship can be made through the Philadelphia Foundation.