The needler in the haystack.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Harry Ailster, the official obituary

Harry at a student production rehearsal in 1968, shortly
after he had begun teaching in the New Providence public schools.
(Image posted on Facebook by former student Karen Franchini.)

Plainfield Symphony Orchestra board member Mary Burgwinkle forwarded a copy of Harry Ailster's official obituary, which I am reprinting below (none has appeared in the newspapers as of Tuesday evening) --

Harry Eugene Ailster 1931-2016

Harry Eugene Ailster lost a valiant and courageous battle with cancer and passed from this life on August 7, 2016.

Harry was born May 19, 1931 in Greenup, Kentucky where he developed the deep talent and love for music that sustained him throughout his life.
At a young age, while listening to his sister practice piano, he learned that he could copy her by ear, leading to local notoriety as a child piano player and then many years of formal piano instruction.

After high school he attended and graduated from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, as a music major. In college, Harry met his lifelong friends, "adopted" sister, Janet Mercer of Freehold, New Jersey and her husband to be, classmate Richard Freeman of Detroit. They were his family throughout his life. Harry was an advanced ROTC student, and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry after graduation. He was called from Reserve Status to Active Duty in October 1954 and served in Munich, Germany, where he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant in April 1956. He was relieved from Active Duty in November 1956 and returned to the U.S. with an Honorable Discharge. After returning to the U.S., Harry worked briefly in a business in Dayton, Ohio.

He then moved to New Jersey, where he worked in music therapy with his "sister" Janet at the former Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. After moving to New Jersey he lived in Freehold and then in Asbury Park, where he participated in local theater groups, another lifelong passion of Harry's. In 1967, Harry began working as a music teacher in New Providence, New Jersey. As a teacher he worked at various times with chorus, as band front director and as a director of student productions.  He loved teaching and his students and made many friends in the school district, among them Sharon Tillou and Betty Metzger who remained in close contact during his illness in 2016. He eventually moved to Westfield, New Jersey and continued to participate in local theater groups.

Harry moved to Plainfield in the late 1980s. After his retirement from teaching in 1993, Harry devoted himself to volunteering in Plainfield. He volunteered for the Historical Society of Plainfield, the non-profit that operates Drake House Museum, spending many years as a board member and House Chairman. He was always willing to pass the hat and sell 50/50 tickets at Historical Society events, and he made each drawing a theatrical production. He participated in activities sponsored by Van Wyck Brooks Historic District in Plainfield, where he initially lived, and he volunteered for many years for the Muhlenberg Auxiliary at the gift shop at the former Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. Eventually, the gift shop became a part time job until Muhlenberg closed in 2008. He was briefly President of the Muhlenberg Auxiliary in the early 2000s.

After that, at the behest of his special friend Wendy Burney, then president of the board, Harry joined the board of directors of the Plainfield Symphony Society (PSO), where he was active until a leave of absence 6 months before his death. Harry was on the Music Director Selection Committee in 2008-2009. The result of the recommendation of that Committee was the selection of Plainfield Symphony Orchestra's current virtuoso Music Director, Charles Prince.

Harry also participated in PSO productions from time to time, narrating Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra". He was a fixture as a center aisle usher at concerts and as a participant at all of the social events.
Harry continued his love of music and acting in Plainfield by participating in productions by Act One Players and by acting as substitute summer music director from time to time at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield. He participated in many productions; however, the production that captured the hearts and minds of Plainfield was "Driving Miss Daisie", where he and his now deceased friend Sally Beckwith played the lead roles. To quote the blog Plainfield Today on August 8, 2016, "Plainfield has lost another icon." He will be sorely missed.
Harry was predeceased by his parents Chester Lafayette and Ollie (McConnell) Ailster, his sister Louise and his brothers Chester Lafayette, Jr., William, James and Samuel. He was also predeceased by his "adoptive sister"  Janet Mercer Freeman, her daughter Janetta and her son, Maurice. He is survived by several nephews and by his "adoptive brother" Richard Freeman of Freehold and by his beloved goddaughters to whom he was devoted, Viveca Freeman of Freehold and Celeste Freeman Robinson and her husband Bill of Hatfield, PA.

He is also survived by his special friends Wendy and Jasmine Burney and Mary Burgwinkle and Greg Haworth of Plainfield, and by hosts of other friends.

Family and friends are invited to attend a memorial service from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM on Thursday, August 18, 2016 at Freeman's Funeral Home, 47 East Main Street, Freehold, NJ 07728.

In lieu of flowers please consider a memorial donation to the Plainfield Symphony Orchestra, P.O. Box 5093, Plainfield, NJ 07061. To share photos, leave a condolence, or find directions visit

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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