Robert J. Vega was born and raised in Humboldt Park, then his mother moved him at 12 to Indiana for better school options. A stint in the U.S. Navy turned Vega into a teacher. Commissioned as a bugler on the historic U.S.S. Constitution battleship, Vega presented naval artifacts to schoolchildren on a tour called “Ironsides Across the Nation.”
The connection stuck with him, so did his family musical roots (which included mariachi bands), and he became a music teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He was the first one in his family to go to college. In 2008, he landed a job with the Noble Network, which now is comprised of 70 Chicago communities, 12 campuses and 7,900 students, 98% of which are minorities and 90% of which come from low income families. He single-handedly built the program that now includes six band classes, a total of 348 students, plus a jazz ensemble.
He views himself as a demanding teacher who creates disciplined musicians from children who’ve never before held an instrument. “As he tells it, music changed his life,” said Assistant Superintendant Eric Thomas, Vega’s former principal who nominated him for the People magazine honor. “He transforms kids, he works with kids who literally are starting from scratch in music. He teaches the kids the value of practice and with enough hard work magic can happen to them.”
Vega, a single dad of a 3-year-old and 6-year-old, said he’ll throw his $4,000 prize money into his school’s budding theater program. “It’s hard to take credit,” he said, “when there have been so many people along the way.” “I was so excited to show the kids: Hard work pays off, hard work pays off,” he said after returning from the New York celebration of the magazine’s Oct. 12 issue. “This is a success story I’m hoping they will cherish.” His enthusiasm is more than infectious.