I met the vivacious Kentlands resident Neal Herron at his volunteer gig at Our House, a 142-acre farm and residential facility in Brookeville for at-risk boys aged 16 to 21. He was steered to the opportunity by his wife, Laura, who volunteers in the administrative office. Recently retired from 20-plus years as a ceramics and stained glass art teacher at Quince Orchard High School (QOHS), he continues his art by volunteer teaching at Our House and his love of music by playing harmonica as a member of the Capital Blues Ensemble.
Growing up in Wheaton, his first love was music. He wanted to be a musician, but he was dissuaded when a friend dispelled the myths of the road and “told him how it really was.” He went on to play with local bands in the area for a time before moving to Boulder, Colorado. Looking back, he said, “What I miss more than anything is front porch playing—what I did growing up. I miss the opportunity to chat and play informally. Working 20 years in one job can get frustrating—music is my outlet.” He found work as a quality assurance manager for an electronic circuit board manufacturing company in Boulder and enjoyed the totally different Colorado lifestyle. A layoff was an opportunity to return to school and earn a teaching degree. “I really took to it,” he said. “Teaching is just natural for me.”
At QOHS, Herron ran the ceramics department and then added stained glass, which he started after making a heron stained glass window for an auction to benefit Rachel Carson Elementary School. It was so successful that he began to teach kids how to do it. Students initially came in at lunch and learned on their own time.
During that time, he noted that all the artwork in the school was done by professional artists. He recalled Principal Dan Shea commenting that it was too bad there was no student artwork in the school. Herron and his students responded by creating 48 stained glass transom windows for the classroom entrance doors.
“The kids designed them all with their own patterns. They had to show me they could manipulate and change designs.” They also started to do mosaics and tiles and a crest window in the school lobby. Some they gave away, some were donations, and some were commissions. “I’m most proud of the media center window—a Tiffany-style mural window that goes together into one. My son helped me design it,” he said.
Both of Herron’s children went to QOHS, and his son is now an art teacher as well. He clearly loved being in the classroom and transferring his love of art to young people. He extolled the talents of his students: “These kids really did something to give back to the community. They taught others and it helped build confidence—kids can talk on a different level with each other.” He had great success, particularly in the stained glass classroom, by asking students to assist each other and share their knowledge.
“They always wanted to keep working even when it was time to clean up! I really enjoyed teaching at QO—loved it. The kids were magical,” he recalled.
One of the reasons he retired was that class sizes were steadily increasing. “When I started, it was 16-18 (students), and at the end it was 34 to 40. At 40, you’re no longer teaching,” he said.
After his wife started volunteering at Our House, Herron was offered use of the onsite pottery studio in exchange for teaching the boys art. He was excited about the opportunity and recently completed the refurbishment of an adjacent building into a stained glass studio. “When kids have free time, they come to the studio and make a project. We talk while I work, and they hang out.” The informal mentoring and involvement in creating an art project surrounds the boys with a positive and supportive environment and an opportunity to live, learn and mature.
Herron instantly loved the Kentlands when the family relocated from Colorado. “I love the idea of knowing neighbors—everything about it, including saying hello from the front porch!”
Visit Our House’s website at www.ourhouse.org. Visitors are welcome in the pottery studio to see Herron’s work and can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Herron is also part of the Capital Blues Ensemble. Check out the Capital Blues Ensemble’s website at www.capitalbluesensemble.com for upcoming dates.