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Meet John Sibley: A lifelong learner

At the age of 57, John Sibley of South Boston may have been the oldest undergraduate student walking in graduation at Longwood University on Saturday. 

He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in music after completing his degree requirements this past June. 

Longwood wasn’t the first college from which Sibley graduated, and music has been an interest for most of his life. 

At a young age, music became an interest of Sibley’s when he began hearing local country and bluegrass bands perform.

By the time he was 12, Sibley was playing guitar. 

Later on he became interested in learning the drums but soon switched to the saxophone. In eighth grade, Sibley joined beginner band and later performed with the Comet Marching Band. 

When he played for the Comet Marching Band, he said his instructor, Robert Wall, who initially taught him to play the saxophone, helped the band earn excellent ratings in district concert band competitions. 

 In the mid-1970s, Sibley began his college career and even though he wanted to study music, he chose to study business heeding his father’s advice. 

After spending one year in economics and other related business classes, he realized he would rather pursue psychology. 

He contributes his interest in psychology to growing up with a mentally disabled brother, Mark Sibley, who suffered from anoxia during birth. 

Even though he chose not to major in music at Radford, he had the opportunity to play in the Radford Highlander Band under Dr. Bennett Lentczner. Sibley played in their jazz ensemble, and his first musical theatre pit orchestra, for a production of “The Boyfriend.” 

In 1976, his time at Radford was halted when his father was hospitalized. 

During that time, Sibley returned home to manage the family business, John Sibley Aluminum Products. 

After a year, his father’s health improved, and Sibley was able to return to his studies, but this time he transferred to Virginia Tech. 

At Virginia Tech, he played the saxophone in The University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, the Virginia Tech Pep Band, and he took private saxophone lessons under Dr. David Widder. 

While at Virginia Tech, he also found time to play in another rock band, Turner Park, which featured Miss Virginia Pamela Polk as a lead vocalist.

He completed his studies earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and soon landed jobs working as an alcoholism counselor and Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (V.A.S.A.P) Instructor for Danville Memorial Hospital.

In 1980, Sibley married his wife, Jane, who worked for the Halifax County Department of Social Services. 

A year later, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he passed away Nov. 10, 1981.  

For a while, Sibley worked at his late father’s aluminum business and as a counselor but eventually devoted all his time to the family business. 

His wife soon left her job as an eligibility worker, and the couple operated the aluminum business for 17 years. 

Eventually, Sibley said, “things changed,” and he thought his wife and himself might better provide for their family by working other jobs.  

Sibley began working for the railroad as a part-time trackman and moved up to a full-time locomotive engineer four years later. 

She began teaching English at Halifax County High School. 

It was 10 years ago that Sibley left the railroad business after breaking his back while moving a 1,700-pound rail during track repairs. 

Throughout the 1980s when the Sibleys weren’t working, they were devoting their time to their four children, Jessica, Joanna, Charlotte and Stephen. 

Their musical involvement became limited to “Sacred music in church” and their children’s piano and dance lessons. 

Their daughters, Jessica and Charlotte, are skilled pianists and have enjoyed opportunities to play piano in church. Both also play the guitar and flute. 

Sibley said Jessica, Charlotte and Joanna sing well, and they all took piano lessons under Lois Cassada. Joanna also plays guitar and saxophone. 

His son, Stephen, was always more interested in sports, but he recently began playing guitar and ukulele. 

Once their children grew into adulthood, the Sibleys began to play and sing folk and bluegrass music with local friends as well as other genres of music such as popular dance music with the 6th N’ Main Band. 

Eventually Sibley decided to apply and audition at North Carolina Central and Longwood University to study music and was accepted into both.

“Both school’s music departments are unique in affording saxophonists as much attention as they afford to their brass players.  I chose Longwood because I thought Dr. Charles Kinzer would be a good mentor, and the tuition costs were cheaper.  I wasn’t disappointed,” said Sibley. 

Sibley added, “Longwood’s music faculty coordinates the teaching progression of the sub-disciplines of music history, music theory, sight-singing and piano classes to share common fundamental concepts such as meter, intervals, chord progressions, functional harmony, cadences, voice-leading and many others.” 

While he was glad to be studying music and performing at Longwood, he hit some rough patches along the way. 

During his three years at Longwood, he suffered a respiratory infection, underwent his fifth ankle surgery and contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Only the respiratory infection delayed his studies, and by studying online in the summer of 2011, he was able to get back on schedule with his foreign language requirement.

Even though Sibley said he often complained of the volume of out-of-class work, he said he “feels very blessed to have pursued the opportunity to study music at Longwood and all the more blessed and humbled to have completed his degree requirements.” 

Before deciding to return to college, he worked to get his children through a college of their choice.  

“We didn’t attempt to tell our children what courses of study or careers to choose, but we encouraged them to pray for God’s guidance,” said Sibley. 

Jessica, age 32, lives in Charlotte and works as an I.P. attorney with Alston and Bird.  Jessica earned her B.S. in environmental science from Duke University and her J.D. from The University of Virginia.  

Joanna, age 31, lives in Alexandria and works as a consultant for C.A.C.I.  Joanna earned a B.S. in psychology and a B.S. in political science from Virginia Tech.  She also earned her M.S. in criminal justice from Radford University.  

Charlotte, age 27, lives with her husband, Ronald Perlowski, in Durham and works in research for FHI 360.  Charlotte earned a B.S. in biology from Duke University and her M.S. in public health from Emory University.  Ronald earned his B.S. from East Carolina University and works for Whole Foods in Chapel Hill.  

Stephen, age 26, lives with his wife, Kathleen (Yates) Sibley, in the Mt. Laurel community and works as a chemist for Fleet Laboratories in Lynchburg.  Stephen earned a B.S. in chemistry from Longwood University. Kathleen earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees from Longwood University and works locally as a speech pathologist.

The Sibleys encouraged their children to “pray for His guidance to courses of study and careers that would firstly be in accordance with God’s will, secondly would lead to jobs that would enable them to use their abilities to help others, and thirdly by God’s mercy, would hopefully result in work that they enjoy.” 

“I always encouraged them to take good care of their bodies, better care of their minds, but the best care of their spirits,” Sibley added. 

Now that Sibley has completed his time at Longwood, his next goal is to study music in graduate school within commuting distance such as in Durham or Chapel Hill. 

His ultimate goal is to teach music at the college level. 

Until he finds the right graduate school, he will prepare for the G.R.E. and will be re-reading his music history and music theory textbooks.  

“Ultimately, I hope to share my knowledge of music with others as so many gracious people have shared with me.  If I am able to return to work and earn a living by teaching music, then that will be all the better,” Sibley concluded.