St. Petersburg resident donates 75 musical instruments to local school

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PETERSBURG — Philanthropist Bill Nicholson, owner of the historic Hudson-Day House on the High Street, has an incredible talent for discovering ways to support the community.

In February 2020, Nicholson signed up for an online auction to purchase items for his High Street townhouse. What happened next was unplanned and fueled by too much coffee.

“I was bidding on home goods online when I noticed a collection of beautiful instruments,” Nicholson said. “I immediately thought how wonderful they would be for music programs in Petersburg schools.”

Nicholson began bidding while drinking his liquid pick-me-up. He recalled how caffeine ignited his competitive side.

“An unknown bidder was also bidding on the same instruments. I couldn’t let him win,” Nicholson explained. “As each instrument came in, all I thought about was the kids from Petersburg.”

By the end of the auction, Nicholson had purchased 75 instruments. He knew they would somehow end up in Petersburg.

“I love music. It changes my mood, motivates me, makes me happy, makes me sad and makes me dance, but only when no one is watching,” Nicholson joked.

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Appomattox Regional Governor’s School

After conquering the bidding war, Nicholson wondered, “What next?”

He reached out to his friends Linda and Dale Pittman to see if they had any ideas of who might benefit from his newly acquired collection of instruments.

The Pittmans, owners of the historic Strawberry Hill home on Hinton Street in Petersburg, referred him to Margaret Storti with Appomattox Regional Governors School. [ARGS].

Basking in his glorious victory, Nicholson visualized students playing beautiful instruments. He never imagined what had to happen before the ARGS could accept his donation.

“I called Ms Storti who was personable and intrigued but also concerned about the unknown condition of the instruments,” Nicholson said. “I had to have them inspected and appraised before she considered looking at them.”

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Nicholson contacted an expert in Richmond. He wanted to see the instruments, but hesitantly.

“He said he was getting so many calls to inspect useless and worthless instruments that he wanted proof of quality before he went to Petersburg,” Nicholson said.

After Nicholson sent the inventory, the excited appraiser was there in less than a day. Expertise in hand, he contacted Storti. What happened next… was music to Nicholson’s ears.

Storti, chair of the ARGS music department, agreed to preview the instruments with two colleagues. The entire lot came from one estate and showed the taste of an eclectic collector.

Nicholson’s offering included about 25 guitars along with a varied collection of violins, drums, a few amplifiers, mountain dulcimers, mandolins, and a ukulele. Music lovers were enthusiastic about the types, quality, variety and quantity of instruments. They almost immediately said yes.

“I can only describe them as kids in a candy store,” Nicholson said. “I was thrilled and relieved that they all wanted them. Watching their happiness brought me great joy.”

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Guitar lessons: Wish granted

Storti wanted to offer a guitar lesson at ARGS. She knew the students would show keen interest, however, the school only had a handful of suitable instruments. Nicholson’s gift helped grant her wish. After getting the new course approved by the ARGS Regional Supervisory Board, the first guitar course with 15 students started last fall with a waiting list.

“Having instruments on site was beneficial,” Storti said. “Students don’t have to risk damaging their own instruments by riding back and forth on a school bus.”

Storti ordered a supply of extra strings and made sure each instrument had a case, strap, and a sturdy tag with a description. Next, ARGS guitar instructor Larry Cauley spent a few weeks going over each instrument and preparing them for use in his classroom.

“What I really love about this gift from Mr. Nicholson is that we can put an instrument in the hands of any student interested in ARGS,” Storti said. “The class is very diverse, offering fantastic extra-curricular choice, with virtually no expense to the student.”

By the end of the 2021-22 school year, the guitar class had transformed into a guitar ensemble. In May, they performed a musical concert alongside the ARGS Orchestra at the inauguration of the new St. Petersburg Library Event Center.

This year’s class is full again, with another waiting list. Students often spend their lunch hour in the guitar classroom practicing and making music with friends.

“Having guitars readily available has really been an attraction here,” Storti said. “It’s an instrument that anyone can learn to play.”

Grateful students

Nicholson’s generosity may have altered the career path of ARGS sophomore Andrew Hall. He recently switched from theater to guitar.

“When I saw that I could not only take guitar as an option but also as a major, I was thrilled,” Hall of Richmond said. “It really is an amazing class. Mr. Cauley is a great guitar player and makes the class not only educational but also fun.

“I had no idea that all the guitars were donated by one person, and I’m really grateful to whoever donated them,” Hall said. “Now everyone can not only have a guitar at school but also one to keep at home.”

Appomattox Regional Governor's School instructor Larry Cauley shows students how to play the guitar Aug. 31, 2022.

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ARGS freshman Tyler Lauranzon of Chesterfield was thrilled when he saw the guitar was offered as an option. After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he lost the opportunity to take professional courses. Therefore, he learned to play on his own.

“Being able to play again and learn new things about an instrument is really exciting. I’m really looking forward to learning more about the guitar,” Lauranzon said. “For Nicholson to donate so many guitars to ARGS, I think that’s really cool.”

Appomattox Regional Governor’s School of Arts and Technology has students enrolled in 14 different school districts: Amelia, Charles City, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Dinwiddie, Franklin City, Hopewell, Petersburg, Powhatan, Prince George, Richmond , Southampton, Surry and Sussex.

Magnet Public High School in downtown Petersburg is one of eighteen Virginia Governor’s Schools and one of three full-time Governor’s Schools in the state. For more information, visit args.us.

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– Kristi K. Higgins, aka The Social Butterfly columnist, is the food news and Q&A reporter at The Progress-Index. Do you have a current tip on local trends or businesses? Contact Kristi (her, her) at [email protected], follow @KHiggins_PI on Twitter @socialbutterflykristi on Instagram.

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