Cal Weary: ‘A football coach for the arts’ in York

In Episode 3 of our “Catalysts” podcast series, we chat with Cal Weary of Weary Arts Group.


In Episode 3 of our “Catalysts” series, we chat with Cal Weary of Weary Arts Group. We’ll talk about his punk rock band days, balancing technology with humanities, and what he would do if he had a million dollars to give back to the arts.


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Part 1: Early entry into the arts

Rebecca: We’re sitting down today with Cal Weary, founder of Weary Arts Group. We’re going to talk about the different programs that you do with Weary Arts, currently running programs in York Academy, JCC, Crispus Attucks, among many others. But before that, you ran arts at New Hope Charter School, and before that, you were the director of performing arts at William Penn for about six years or so. You’ve called yourself a football coach for the arts, and you look the part, at six foot-something…

Cal: 300-something. Probably about 257 now, I mean 287, no, 297. Let’s get it right, I don’t wanna lie.

Rebecca: You wanna start off honest.

Cal: Yes. Won’t shame myself.

Rebecca: Did you always think that you would go into teaching arts?

Cal: I always knew I would be working in the arts. I knew that was gonna be a definite from age two, but I didn’t necessarily know that I’d be teaching it, and I’m glad that happened, but I really had a viewpoint against teaching, just because of a stupid saying, you know?

Those who don’t do, teach, and somebody had said that to me at one point at a young age, and I didn’t really understand what that meant, but I knew that it seemed negative. I would say, definitely, I don’t agree with that now.

Rebecca: So, how did you see arts in your life at that time early on?

Cal: It definitely was a part of me. I went through a stage where I believed I wanted to be a cybernetic scientist or I believed I wanted to be a lawyer, and then I realized, every time, that what I wanted to do was pretend I was those things.

And then, you know, for a lot of people, once you’ve acted a lot, you start to see all these things that you wish you could change that you can’t change unless you’re one of the people in charge, and that’s why I rolled to direction.

I still love to act, still one of my favorite things to do, still a part of me every single day, but being a director, being a producer allows me to have a lot more control over what is disseminated to my audiences.

Part 2: Lead singer of a melodic punk rock bank

Rebecca: We’ve gotta talk about Eden Park. So, for those who have no idea what Eden Park is, or what your experience was there, give us, in a nutshell, what Eden Park was.

Cal: So, for 14 years of my life, I was the lead singer of a melodic punk rock, theatrical melodic punk rock band called Eden Park. We were locally based, here in York, Pennsylvania, started out of York College. From day one, we knew. I’m just kidding, but seriously, we really formed there.

We were actually more of a rock band, like a Pearl Jam at the time, which now would be classic rock, but back then was rock, grunge rock.

But eventually, became this really grassroots, every local town-loving, punk rock band, and made some videos, about eight albums, stayed very underground, but it was the place where I was able to tell my own stories, write my own lyrics, and really just go nuts, you know?

And I think it was a great precursor to what I ended up becoming, as far as being a teacher, because we spent a lot of time teaching other bands how to do merch and how to tour, and you know, how to just be friends in a band, for the sake of the band, and not for the sake of anything else.

And really, that same viewpoint still kinda stems through what I do with our subcontractors with Weary Arts Group.

Rebecca: And you were, I mean, Eden Park existed for quite a while.

Cal: Yeah, 14 1/2 years.

Rebecca: And so you were doing that while you were doing all these other things.

Cal:  Yes.

Rebecca: When you headed into William Penn and New Hope…

Cal: Yes, still in college.

Rebecca: You were still doing Eden Park…

Part 3: Transitioning to teaching

Cal: Yes, so pretty much the way things went, if you think of almost like a Lady Law, you know, where you have the weights?

Basically, most of my life was weighted upon Eden Park, and everything else was much later, and as I became more involved with the arts program at York City Schools, as I became more involved with camps for York Little Theater, which is now called Belmont, Eichelberger, all the different places where I was doing acting and training or working, the weights started to bend more in the direction of being a teacher.

And I remember like there were two moments where everything changed for me with that, but I didn’t leave the band or anything like that. I definitely wouldn’t have done that, but I did, in a way, start to pull away and do more there.

One, I was out, and predominantly, as far as our demographic, we had a lot of young white males who like were kinda angsty and were looking for something to get crazy to, and that was like our fan base, and a gentleman walked up to me at the mall and he said, “Hey, how you doin’?”

I said, “How are you?”

And I assumed that he was a kid who came out to shows, and then he called me Mr. Weary, and I realized this is a kid who I didn’t have as a student, but who knew me from school, and it was when the shift happened, to where the people who I was serving as far as rock ‘n’ roll was concerned started to look like the people I was serving at the school, and I couldn’t tell the difference, but I was getting as much notoriety for being a teacher as being a rock guy, and I was like eh.

And then, the other thing was someone told me that I was expendable at the school, made a comment about my position being expendable, and I’m not real good with that sorta thing, so pretty much, within three years of that, my predecessor, Bob Miller, ended up stepping down, and I didn’t force him out. It wasn’t anything like that, but he was ready to retire.

He was like a dad to me from age four, and he pretty much handed the family business over to me, it just happened to be in a school. And we had a great run of it, you know?

But I knew, from that moment when someone said that I was expendable, that I needed to up my game when I came to the school. There were so many more people to impact there.

Part 4: 'I ended up in the right place'

Rebecca: I know, when we had talked previously about some of your background and stuff, your story and your journey goes a lotta routes, and you had a lotta things going on, Eden Park being one of them, while you’re doing these other things. It’s interesting to me to hear when you talked about living in a Habitat for Humanity house, and you were still like working in the arts and doing these things. Did you feel like you were a starving artist?

Cal: Well, no, I always ate. I’m a 300-pound guy. Nah, I’m just kidding. I wasn’t always 300 pounds, either.

No. You know, I think when you’re in it, you don’t think of yourself as being it. When you look back on it, if you’ve gotten to a higher, if I wanna say higher station in life, then you think man, we did live off of $20,000 a year. How did we do that, you know?

I never thought of myself as a starving artist. There was always supports in place. My mother was always a great support. I mean, this lady used to go to New York with us for gigs, party with us, made different things for us to sell, merch-wise, buttons and stuff, you know?

There were always people who were involved in our lives when we were doing that aspect, and as far as me as an actor, I spent a lot of lonely years going out for auditions in New York, you know, driving up and spending hours and hours in lines, just to be told that, or to be told nothing.

I’ve done a couple of things, but I don’t think I ever divested myself into myself as an actor as much as I had either with band-wise or with being a director. I’ve been very successful, as far as arts education is concerned, and directing, and I think that sometimes my original ideas of who I wanted to be, I never gave as much time to those things as what really, really stoked my fire, which was working with people and helping them to become greater. So, I ended up in the right place.

Part 5: The Island of Misfit Toys

Rebecca: You perfectly lead in to the next thing that I wanted to talk about. With Weary Arts Group, you’ve kind of created this teaching tool, this empowering tool for kids in York, and in particular, you know, kids that are living in the city.

Cal:  Right.

Rebecca: How do you think that those programs play into their lives and impact them?

Cal: One thing, and it’s not to correct, but just to say. We definitely work with kids in the city, but we have kids everywhere, and the reason I mention that is because kids who would have classically just been city kids, and I’m saying people who have a poverty background or just are low income, they’re everywhere now, and so what has happened is what classically started out as being inner-city programming has turned into inner-city rural programming.

I have students who live in Wyndham Hills and I have students who live on Jackson Street, and so what they become is ambassadors to each other’s worlds, and any one of them will tell you that they are as good of friends with their friends whose parents make a billion dollars a year as they are with their friends who their parents who make 20,000 a year or less.

And so, that’s the first thing I would say about that, but yes, programming-wise, we try to serve the people that don’t fit anywhere else, and that is very much in line with my punk rock background. You know, these are the people who either look different or sound different or got something, just some bad wiring, and they don’t fit into these other worlds where everybody expects them to always show up the same person.

We end up with, we’re like the Land of Misfit Toys, the Island of Misfit Toys? We say it all the time, that’s who we’ve always been.

Part 6: Helping others share their story

Rebecca: When they don’t fit in anywhere else, and you have created this place that they fit in now, in what positions are you seeing them kind of thrive?

Cal: A lot of my kids come in with an idea they wanna be a dancer or they wanna be an actor, and they expect that that’s what they’re gonna do, that’s who they’re gonna be, and they end up running lights or they end up running sound.

They end up creating programs or being part of grassroots groups that go out and put out flyers, and you know, I think the point is that all other subjects that they’ve learned in school are realized in actual practice in the performing arts.

I had a conversation with a good friend recently, and we were talking about her daughter’s experiences with us, ’cause she was put in camp with us for three years, and she said what is it that you guys do that is different than other places, and I said, well, there are a lot of experiences that have nothing to do with the actual arts that happen at a camp, and we allow your child to experience them. If she’s really good with other kids and wants to work with the younger children, we’ll let her do that. We’ll let her be a part of the helping crew. If she really gets into lighting and everybody else is dancing, but she’s not much of a dancer, we’ll let her learn more about lighting.

Every one of the experiences is tailor-made to those children, and when we have issues, we address them. We don’t expect everyone to fit into a cookie cutter.

And the same thing works with our adults. The people who work with us and for us, everybody is given their own story, the ability to tell their own story, and to work out what they’re going to be doing with our organization.

A lot of organizations can’t do that. They’re locked into being who they are. We are still figuring out who we are, but in a good way.

Part 7: Arts opening the floodgates

Rebecca: We’ve talked about, before, when you and I had met, about York going through this Renaissance. Especially when it comes to the art scene.

You had mentioned that, if these flood gates stay open five, six years, that York could really continue to see that growth for the next 20 years. It could just expand and do so much more and be this epicenter for the arts.

So, can you kind of elaborate on that a little bit? What do you see in that growth?

Cal: I see that, when you go into a town, and I’m gonna bring this back around to York, most cities you walk into, smaller ones, you can tell if the arts is facing you. You can tell by what you see on the streets, you can tell by the number of galleries. You can tell by the way that the arts are accepted and respected.

You go down the streets of York 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have necessarily known what their feeling was on the arts. In fact, it was like the arts had its back turned to you, and it didn’t mean it wasn’t here. It was always here, it was just covered.

Now, you go down the street, you see sculptures on the corners, galleries open, a number of events that happen that are built into the city’s structure, and those outside of the city, also. It’s starting to turn its face toward people with its art. It’s accepting of it, and what I hope to see coming in the future is that we start solving more and more of our problems using the arts.

It is an amazing way for people to tell their story, for them to get out their angst and their pain, and also to just open up the sky to a little more light, and so a lot of those things mean nothing. What’s the bottom line? What’s the dollar amount?

And there are a lot of studies, but the one that always sticks in my head is that for every million dollars spent, 23 million comes back. That means a lot. The arts are a coal-burning energy starter for a city of any size, and there’s all these artists, and they’re constantly working, and what we want is constant work.

We build highways into people’s minds and souls. The people will pay for entertainment. They’ll pay for things like our amazing Fringe Festival that just happened.

You know, they’ll come to this town to be a part of that, and to see it in a different way than they would in a larger city. York can be an epicenter for arts done a different way, and not just industrial arts. I think that’s amazing, that we have enough of that here.

Do more of it, but also other things, and I’d love to see York be a place where artists come to live and raise their families. I think that would be amazing, but there’s some things we do need to do here.

We need to solidify our school systems. I think that having a school of the arts here would be an amazing thing.

I think we need more and more festivals to happen, and yes, it does cost money, but these things do generate funds, also.

But I do think York is a great place to raise your children and I think it’s a great place to settle down, and I think we can have a lot more artists that would look at this as being their home, and if it is their home, it’s a place they would sell their art, it’s a place they would do their art, and it’s a place that they would bring others from outside to come to, to see what they did.

Part 8: Technology vs. Humanities

Rebecca: When we sat down before, we talked about growing technologically, which has been a big push in this area in particular, which is great, something to be really proud of, but you expressed, I don’t know if concern is the right word, but that a loss of humanity with those things…

Cal: And we know it’s true. People can’t look each other in the eye anymore and have conversation. It was something that we were trained to do as kids, and we’re seeing whole generations of people who are constantly talking to people with their heads bowed down because they’re just used to always having a device in their hand.

I’m not putting them down. I think technology’s an amazing thing, and I will be very happy to call York Robot Town USA someday, ’cause I think robots are amazing. They’re art, too.

I think being able to see the art in everything, you know, that is my life, so I can’t help but see that, but I believe that, as technology grows, we need to make sure that we’re also growing beside them with the arts, so that we keep our humanity connected to these things. And there’s a place for us, and if we don’t believe there’s a place for us, then what are we gonna become?

So, as we build these technology, I mean, here’s the thing, coding right now and all these amazing things, they’re great. Eventually, they’re gonna be the same way as the computer that you have in your pocket. You won’t know ones and zeros. You won’t have to put in numbers. You will speak coding, and you will create with it, and once you start getting the creation, you automatically just opened the door for the arts to be a major part of it.

The amazing things that will come to this town will only happen when you mix the two together. They have to, and they need to be equal.

Now, they’re gonna give more money to robots or to coding programs right now, but those that run those programs had better recognize that they need to be connected to the arts and to the humanities, so that they continue to live and grow, because what is the point of having an amazing robotic arm that moves thousands of tons of metal, if no one wants to buy the amazing thing that it makes? They need to be connected.

Part 9: If Cal had a million dollars...

Rebeca: Going back to the funding, a little bit. You know, talking about how investments, it comes back to you tenfold, and obviously, as you grow Weary Arts Group and you become more successful as an entrepreneurial artist through this group, you had said in a pre-interview, you’d love to make a million dollars.

Not necessarily for yourself, have that comfort, but that you would then have these funds that you could give back, so let’s dream a little, that you have this money. What would you put it into? What would you choose to invest it in?

Cal: One thing that’s amazing about this area is the number of people who really believe in stewardship. I have a number of very good friends who are great stewards of the arts and of people, and we’ve learned from them. I’ve learned from them, so what I’m saying is that, when we are at a place where we can really start putting those dollars back in the people, I want people who want to learn the arts to be able to do that, no matter what.

There should be monies aside. I know there are plenty of programs, but people don’t know how to get to them, and if they do know, the processes have been way too hard for them to learn.

Everyone should be able to pick up an instrument. Everyone should be able to pick up a brush and paint. I think you’d have a lot less problems in this town if people knew there was somewhere that they could have that de-escalating, opening experience that arts bring.

But it all starts with our children, and it definitely ends with our elderly, so on both ends of those, I’d really like to see some more programming created for them, places that they could go to actually get arts training, and I’m working on some projects right now to help with that.

But if you said to me, if you had a million dollars today, what would you do with it? Well, no matter what, I’d make sure that some part of it would go towards sustainability and replenishing itself, but directly having a place where a child can sit down, write a letter, and say I wanna learn to dance because, and they get the funds to go and take classes, wherever it is that they need to go and learn, they should be able to do that.

That should be, I think, as important as health care, ’cause it’s mental health care, you know? That’s what I would do.

Probably, in my lifetime, I’m sure I’ll be a millionaire, but I’ll probably never know it, because it is built into me to always keep putting that money back into, I take that back, maybe I will know it. I’m not gonna fight that, but I certainly know that I’m still learning he ways to be able to build and be a steward for my community, and still take care of myself and my immediate and my arts family.

Artists constantly are starving and broken, and it makes no sense, because they give so much to the world.

Rebecca: Well, I love to watch what you do. Thanks for doing what you do for York, and thanks for coming to talk to us a little bit about it today.

Cal: It’s been a pleasure.

Artists constantly are starving and broken, and it makes no sense, because they give so much to the world.

Cal Weary

“Catalysts” is a production of Our York Media. The project was funded in part by the YorIt Social Venture Challenge Grant from the York County Community Foundation. Our title sponsor is York College of Pennsylvania Center for Community Engagement with support from Stock and Leader Attorneys at Law. This show is hosted by Rebecca Hanlon and produced by Will Hanlon and Caleb Robertson.

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