Jim Cherewatenko: Never Too Late to Finish What You Started

Joe Cherewatenko


By Suzanne Waring

Looking back over your life, have you left something unfinished? It frequently happens. Jim Cherewatenko of Great Falls found himself in this situation.

Forty-eight years ago, he was to graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a Bachelor of Music Education degree as well as a Bachelor of Music in performance degree.

He received the degree in music education, but the one in music performance was not to be.

Jim grew up in Great Falls and started playing the clarinet at a young age. He had a fascination with his mother’s old clarinet he had found in the closet when he was around 5 years old.

His mother made certain he had lessons. At first his hands were too small to cover the holes, so the music teacher started him out on the piano, but as soon as he was able, he took up the clarinet.

Starting in junior high, he attended summer camps where he became acquainted with professors at universities across the country.

During his senior year in high school, he shared the drum major position and got to know Bill Larson, the encouraging new music teacher at Great Falls High School.

An outstanding clarinet professor and the mountainous landscape drew Jim to the University of Colorado, where he had four years of enjoyable college life and quality music instruction.

As his senior year drew to a close, he was able to land a position with the Boulder Valley Public Schools, teaching music in middle school during the school year and teaching summer music for the Great Falls Public Schools.

He had shared a recital with another musician his junior year in college, and he was set to do the senior solo recital by picking out the selections, practicing, and choosing a date. The senior recital was the final requirement for the music performance degree.

Then he learned that the summer job started before the date that had been set for the recital. He postponed the recital in favor of the job.

When he got back to the Boulder area, he was busy with the music program at the middle school, and the recital was never rescheduled.

Jim taught in the middle school for seven years and then for four years at Broomfield High School, which was in the same school district.

That last year, his band of 174 members was selected to perform at the Portland Rose Parade.

“I didn’t like the idea that students who, starting at around 12 years of age, had to choose between participating in athletics or fine arts. I felt they could do both. I coached basketball and football, and that helped. My middle school program grew from 17 to 230 students,” said Cherewatenko. “My goal for the students wasn’t that they would all become musicians. To me, the test showing that I was successful was when they could attend a concert and appreciate the effort that had gone into the practice and performance by each musician.”

Even with Jim’s success during 11 years of teaching, he decided it was time to move on. He was 34 years old and felt he was too old to devote years to becoming a medical doctor, though he had always had an interest in the sciences.

Jim decided to enroll in the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study to be a physician assistant.

He completed two years of prep work, taking courses in the hard sciences, and then two years in the physician assistant program.

Graduating in 1988, he began practicing as a physician assistant. Even though he still carried his clarinet with him, essentially the case was gathering dust during those busy years.

Jim came back to Montana in 2001 and practiced as a physician assistant in his hometown, retiring in 2017.

Upon his arrival back in Great Falls, he got out his clarinet, started practicing, and began playing with the Winds of Montana, a concert band of professional musicians, founded by Bill Larson.

During the cold January of 2019, Jim was doing the mindless task of shoveling snow when it occurred to him that at 70 years of age, he should do his senior recital. He started practicing the pieces he had selected years earlier. In doing so, he next decided to video the recital and present it to the College of Music at the University of Colorado to find out whether it would be recognized for completion of the music performance degree.

He left a message with the Dean of the College of Music. The dean replied that it was a fantastic story, but he didn’t know about the mechanics of making it possible. He turned the project over to the assistant dean who reviewed Jim’s transcript and determined that all he needed for his degree was to do the senior recital.

The recital was held and video recorded on February 22 at the First United Methodist Church in Great Falls. Sharman Tokerud was his accompanist on the piano.

The recording was sent to clarinet professor Dan Silver, who viewed it and gave Cherewatenko an “A” for Senior Recital course #MUS499.

The recital was held just in time before the Coronavirus shut down any crowd-gathering events, but the graduation that Jim had planned to take part in on May 7 was canceled.

Regardless, he will receive his Bachelor of Music degree in the mail.

“I always regretted that I wasn’t able to give my senior recital,” said Cherewatenko. “After 48 years, I now have the satisfaction that this unfinished thing is completed. I hope that what I have done will show others it may not be too late for them to address those things they were forced to leave unfinished.” MSN

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