University Alumnus and pianist celebrates 95th birthday

By Carlos Caceres

James Russell Vaky sits in his one-room apartment at the Inman Plaza in Champaign, his eyes squinting in the light, surrounded by paintings and sketches that he has drawn over the years.

Although he graduated from the University in 1933, he still wears the class ring he purchased over 70 years ago.

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Vaky may be blind and nearly a century old, but today is his 95th birthday and he can still tickle the ivories.

An accomplished pianist, organist and artist, he first laid his fingers on a piano at seven years old along with his sister Alpha and brother Theodore.

“I enjoyed it,” Vaky said. “However, I resented it when my mother would call me in the afternoon when we were playing when it was time to practice. I didn’t appreciate that, but I do now many years later.”

Vaky said he is still able to play, despite his handicap, because he developed his technical skills from the exercises his music instructors had him perform.

Vaky was named in honor of his mother’s favorite poet, James Russell Lowell. His favorite composers are Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederic Chopin.

About a year ago, Vaky introduced himself to Reverend James Till, the director of Music Ministries at the First United Methodist Church of Champaign, and asked if he could practice playing piano at the church.

Till said that Vaky’s playing is “quite good, it’s marvelous.”

Eighty-eight years after Vaky’s first lesson, he is extremely happy to be reaching this milestone in his life.

“I’m very grateful to the lord,” Vaky said. “I’m very grateful because I’m the last surviving member of my family … I’ve had several heart attacks and I have what they call vertigo.”

Vaky’s closest friend, Glenn Stout, met him eight years ago at church and they are both members of Kiwanis, a global organization that serves children in the community.

Stout, 86, said that Vaky is a very knowledgeable person.

“He has a tremendous memory,” said Stout. “He’s very sharp, he never forgets anything.”

Vaky enrolled in the University’s School of Music in 1929.

“I played in the first regimental band for a couple of years,” Vaky said. “In those years, when you played in the band, you did not have to enter ROTC you know, that’s how you got out of it.”

He later transferred to the College of LAS because he felt he was not as talented as other students. When he compared himself to his peers, he felt he would never reach their level, which he now says is not true.

Although he is most passionate about music, Vaky has studied in fields as varied as language and painting.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and German and continued to perform as a professional pianist while he studied painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.

In 1972, his first book of poetry, “Selected Sonnets”, was published.

He created the James Russell Vaky Merit Scholarship in Music, a scholarship at the University for students majoring in piano, organ, cello or harp, in 2004.

To celebrate his birthday, Vaky will be having a banana split party and dinner with a few close friends, including Stout. They will also be going to the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign to watch the U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America.