LIMA —Even while accepting his award, Jerry Felter imparted a little wisdom on the Liberty Arts Magnet School pupils sitting in front of him.
“Go onto college. You can do whatever you want. Don’t listen to other people tell you you can’t because they don’t know,” said the man they see regularly in their hallways and affectionately call “Pickle.”
For nearly 20 years, Felter has brought blues musicians to schools, raised money for scholarships and, along with long-time significant other J.R. Riestenberg, attended countless school events.
Friday, he got a little back by way of some love and a fitting neon blue pickle. The sign, created by local neon artist Justin McCoy, will join other neon pieces, flags and “artifacts” in his shop, or as he likes to say, his “temple.”
“Fortunately we have people in the community like Pickle and J.R. who really care about what happens in the Lima City Schools, especially the arts,” art teacher Mike Huffman said as pupils applauded.
Felter thought he was just attending another artist demonstration at the school today. Riestenberg was there reading with pupils, like she does every Friday.
“This is quite a surprise. This isn’t what we are all about, but it is greatly appreciated,” he said. “We love coming to see the work you do. It is very cool.”
Felter has been bringing musicians to the schools for 19 years. Musicians spend at week at the schools and often perform with pupils. The schools have added other components to go along with the music residencies. The owner of a local seal coating business, Felter says helping the schools is what he does on his off season.
“When students study the arts and they participate in music in school, they become better students in all the other classes,” he said. “They always score higher on SAT scores, they go to better colleges and universities, they become better citizens for everybody. It is a big super win, win, win.”
Felter grew up on a farm in Seneca County, where he got his nickname from picking pickles on the farm. Working along migrant workers at times, he also learned about different kinds of music.
“When you are out on the farm and working roundup for 11 hours, you sing every song you now, tell yourself every joke you know,” he said, also crediting his time at Kent State University to opening his eyes to music and art.
Felter came to Lima in 1976 and became involved with ArtSpace/Lima and the Blues Festival in 1992. He took over the event, now called the Blues Extravaganza, in 2003. This year’s event will be March 1 and 2. As always it helps to raise scholarship money. Twenty-six scholarships have gone to graduates majoring in the arts. Felter is most proud to say that five of them are teachers today.
“They get to touch how many more students and spread the word and appreciation for music,” he said.
Riestenberg, who calls Felter a “man on a mission,” is beside him all the way. She loves being out with Felter and hearing a small voice from behind yell, “Pickle, Pickle.” The couple gets approached by youngsters who have benefited from their work all of the time.
Their work goes beyond just bringing often expensive musicians to schools, said Sally Windle, director of the arts and magnet programs. She points to pupil fundraisers and art shows and performances rarely missed by the two.
“They have done something at almost every level of the schools,” she said. “They are always an active part of our school landscape.”