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The Gift of Music

In her own words, Anne Lesky shares the story of how carrying on a beloved workplace tradition has reawakened her passion for singing.

Anne Lesky headshot against backdrop of bright pink azaleas

Voices is a series of first-person narratives written by members of the NC State community reflecting on experiences that have shaped their personal and professional lives. Anne Lesky, a compliance accountant in the Office of Sponsored Programs and Regulatory Compliance Services, writes about carrying on the tradition of “Singing With the SPARCS.”

The first song I wrote and sang was for John Chaffee, our former director. He’s the one who started this wonderful tradition in SPARCS of singing goodbye songs for employees who retire or leave. We had a close-knit group who worked together for a long time, so it was a big deal when somebody left.

John is a very musical person; he plays guitar and sings. He would write these creative parody songs for people when they would leave. He would always use the song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” but he would switch out the lyrics to fit the person. He’d recruit people to sing with him, and I enjoyed participating.

These songs brought unity and harmony — and it was a lot of fun. I love how John used the gift of music to really make a difference and pull people together.

When it came time for him to retire, it’s as if nobody had to tell me — I just knew within myself that I was the person to carry on the tradition. But I’d never done anything like that before, as far as writing and performing songs.

John’s Song

As a kid growing up, I would always sing and dance in my bedroom. And I remember my mom telling me that when she was pregnant with me, anytime she’d turn on the radio, I would start moving around as if I were dancing in the womb. Music just really clicks with me. It’s always been there, literally from the beginning.

I sang in a church choir for several years in my 20s. When I worked up the courage to sing solos, it was so hard for me to get up in front of people and be the center of attention because by nature I am introverted, very quiet and shy. I remember inviting my parents and both came — I think they were in shock.

When I was in my early 30s, it all came to an end, as if the music went to sleep. There was so much change in my life at that time. I got married, and we moved twice. I also changed jobs twice. I fell into the common rut of work, make money and pay bills. And I lost the space — the passion— for music.

It stayed that way for 10 years, until I sang the song for John.

When the opportunity came to write his song, all those feelings of insecurity and fear flooded back in. But I just knew I was the one who was meant to do it. So I took a gospel song called “I’ll Fly Away,” which I knew by heart, and I switched out the lyrics. That became John’s song.

I got a small group together, and we practiced for about two months. John had retired from the Army before he worked at NC State, so at the end of the song I incorporated a jody call to pay tribute to his work in the military.

group of people singing together
Anne Lesky, center, in red top and white skirt, leads a group of co-workers in a song to celebrate the retirement of former SPARCS director John Chaffee.

I was so nervous to perform the song for him, but once I got going, it all fell into place. I felt more relaxed. I felt more in control, and it just flowed. I didn’t realize the impact the songs had on people until I was provided with a few cell phone recordings. It was amazing — everybody was smiling and looked so happy.

I think John was in shock. At the end of the performance he said, “now I see the tradition is in good hands.”

That experience — that moment — reignited my love for music and singing. It’s like that part of me had been asleep and this experience reawakened it.

Continuing the Tradition

Since John left, our new associate vice chancellor, Sherrie Settle, has been very supportive of me and the music. When one of our administrators left, she scheduled a fake meeting to help our group surprise him with a song. He thought he was heading to a conference room, but we came into his office and sang “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Sherrie was so instrumental in making that happen, and she continues to help us carry on the tradition.

One of my other favorite performances was for our computer programmer, Peter Schledorn, who created our system from scratch, which was a big deal. Just before he retired, our leadership decided to move to a whole new system. Peter had contributed to the success of research at NC State through the system that he created, so I wanted to do a really special song for him.

I was having writer’s block, and I started to panic about running out of time. And then one day I was sitting in my car at a stop light on Western Boulevard, and Barry Manilow came on the radio singing, “Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl …” It was as if a voice said to me, “That’s Peter’s song”. I changed it to “His name was Peter. He was a genius.” After that, the words just came to me. And Peter seemed to really enjoy the performance.

During COVID I did one virtual performance by myself because we couldn’t practice as a group. A very special performance during that time was when a group of us sang to a co-worker who had been hospitalized for several weeks with COVID in December 2021. We sang “Jingle Bells,” but with lyrics changed to make it a get-well song. She stood on her apartment balcony, and we sang to her from the grass below.

A True Calling

I find that when I sing, I go into this zone, and when I’m writing songs, they just come to me, as if I’m not really doing it myself. It’s as if there is a higher power that kicks in and takes over, helping bring the music to life. It’s hard to explain. But when I sing, I feel excitement inside my heart. I know it is my true calling.

I haven’t really pursued music outside of work, but I have put a prayer out that if an opportunity comes up for me to do something with music — to make a difference for the higher good — I’m open to it.

I don’t want to be the shy, quiet person who nobody knows has this talent for singing. I want to let it out, and I want to let it happen. And I owe John a huge thank-you for being the one who inspired me to rekindle my passion for music.