Arts academy honors Mustari at inaugural bash

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Mustari (right) with Chicago Academy for the Arts Head of School Jason Patera

Serving as the first principal of The Chicago Academy for The Arts was never the plan for Frank Mustari. A guidance counselor at Niles West High School in suburban Skokie, Mustari asked to take a leave of absence in 1981 to help establish the academy, the first of its kind in the city.

“I thought the concept was a great idea. I was working at a high school that had virtually everything — an art department, a theater department, a music department. Chicago Public Schools didn’t have any of those things,” the 86-year-old says. “When I saw in the paper who was involved (in the initiative), I realized I knew some of them, and I volunteered to help with curriculum development.”

In September 1981, just a few days into The Academy’s inaugural school year, Mustari was promoted principal. “Because of my years of experience at Niles West, it became noticeable that I was much more experienced in school structure and administration,” he explains. “Most of the faculty and administration for The Academy were younger and less experienced than I.”

Mustari served in a variety of roles over 21 years at The Academy, which educates aspiring young artists in the fields of dance, media arts, music, theater, musical theater and visual arts.

He was presented in April with a Leadership and Legacy Award at The Academy’s inaugural “Encore,” a weekend-long fundraising celebration featuring an all-school showcase and performances celebrating students, alumni, staff and supporters.

“It totally surprised me,” Mustari says. “I was thrilled that I was still able to get around and do it (attend the celebration).”
Plans are in the works to name the academy’s administration wing in Mustari’s honor.

A lifelong Chicago resident, Mustari grew up in the Austin neighborhood surrounded by people of mostly Irish, Polish and German descent. His parents, who made homemade wine and soppressata, spoke Italian at home, but out of a “need to be American,” he always responded in English.

“I regrettably never learned to speak Italian,” he says. “My culture and my personality, I am definitely Italian.”

As an adult, Mustari traveled to Florence to study Italian language and Renaissance art for the summer. “Big mistake!” he says. “Everyone, it seems, spoke English in Florence. The time was not wasted, however, because I had the opportunity to visit relatives in Calabria.”

His first sense of being surrounded by his own community came as a fifth-grader, when he was chosen to represent Italy in a St. Patrick’s Day celebration pageant and realized how many Italians had moved into the predominantly Irish parish in recent years.

“When I appeared on the stage my line was, ‘I am Italy,’ which unexpectedly drew a thunderous cheer from the audience,” he recalls. “I could hardly speak my next line.”

Mustari attended the now-closed Resurrection School and Fenwick High School, and graduated from Loyola University with an undergraduate degree in social studies. Later, while he was working as a teacher, he took classes at night to earn a master’s in guidance and counseling.

His first teaching job was at St. Mel High School, followed by De La Salle High School, which he left as guidance director to become a guidance counselor at Niles West High School in suburban Skokie.

His leave from Niles West to help establish The Academy ended up lasting three years. He served as principal for nine months, then was asked to take on the role of headmaster.

When The Academy was “in full swing and firmly established,” Mustari returned to Niles West in 1984 as college counselor He also wanted to ensure he wouldn’t lose his public school system retirement benefits, he adds.

Besides traveling to Italy, Mustari used his summers off as an educator by traveling throughout Europe and attending continuing education programs in places such as Stanford University, Harvard University, the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin. “I was a real travel bug for a while, and I combined travel and education.”

Mustari retired from Niles West in 1993 and immediately got a call from The Academy asking him to return as headmaster. “I agreed to the ‘temporary’ position for several months waiting for the results of the search,” he says. “Then I was informed by The Academy board that they ended their search hoping that I would continue on.”

He ended up staying on as headmaster for more than nine years, eventually retiring once and for all in 2002. “The school was doing well and I had an assistant that was excellent, and I thought she could easily handle the job,” he says. “It was time.”

As for his best memories of the The Academy, his words from his 2002 farewell address best describe that:

“Most of all, I’ll always remember the sounds of this building at 1010 West Chicago at about 1:35 p.m. each day. From every corner of this place —sounds of young people learning how to dance, to draw and paint, to sing, to play an instrument, to write and just grow in their craft. What a cacophony of sound! What music to my ears!”

Plans are in the works to name the academy’s administration wing in Mustari’s honor.


About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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