Joe Chithalen was a young musician beloved in Kingston because he encouraged everyone with an interest in music to perform. When he died, suddenly and unexpectedly on May 1st 1999, it took just hours for his friends to organize a bus so they could travel to his funeral, several hours away. In the same few short hours, one particular friend, Wally High, had made the decision to follow through on a concept he and Joe had discussed often: finding a way to make sure everyone had a chance to learn to play an instrument. They both knew that many of the young people who “hung out” aimlessly could be redeemed by music.
Wally discussed the plan with local friends as well as with Joe’s parents… but he also began immediately to follow through. By June of 1999 he was planning the first “benefit day” to bring in money for a scholarship and a lending library of musical instruments. By July, he had feelers out to many of the bands Joe had performed with, working to organize a benefit concert. Mike McCallion, a childhood friend of the Chithalens, offered to assist with the logistics of the first concert. Wally also forged a partnership with Rob Doak of Radio Station K-Rock which lasted 8 years and won Rob Citizen of the Year honours in March 2001 for his organizational work.
During the same summer, Wally was already searching for a location for this “lending library of musical instruments.” His networking skills eventually found him in conversation with Frank Lockington of St. Lawrence College. These two felt that there might be a place at St Lawrence for the library, and Frank offered to store and catalogue Joe’s large personal collection of musical instruments, in addition to the many instruments which had already been donated to the cause by local musicians and friends.
Sarah Harmer, Luther Wright, and Tom Wilson headlined the first “JoeShow” concert, held at Lake Ontario Park on September 19th, 1999.
Joe’s parents had established a Fund with the Kingston and Area Community Foundation. Beginning with “in memoriam” donations, the fund grew quickly as fund raisers were organized by friends and fellow musicians (e.g. Spencer Evans’s Wine Women and Song, sale of the Blues Brothers’ squad car donated by Dan Aykroyd, a $175.00/plate dinner featuring Sarah Harmer, a “Remembering Joe” CD). The Lacey family was the first to ask that “in memoriam” donations for their son to be made to the JoeShow.
Never one to settle for half-measures, Wally High was already looking at waterfront property for a free-standing Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library by the time of the first “JoeShow.” Domenic Amatucci set up the first “JoeShow” website in February 2000, and they were off!
“JoeShows” became a tradition in Kingston, headlining famous friends, but also introducing fresh local talent.
Wally’s networking quickly led him to the former Robert Meek School as a temporary location for the library, but the search for a free-standing location continued. In October 2001, the first instrument loans were made, from the basement of the Robert Meek building. Our first librarian was local musician Mariko (“Muddy”) Ohtake. A “Grand Opening” on Sunday April 28th 2002 featured new musicians who had borrowed instruments from the library along with another newcomer, Serena Ryder.
Local music stores, supportive of the concept from the beginning, restrung guitars and made repairs to instruments as needed.
The Board of Directors of the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library met for the first time on November 2nd, 2001, with Wally High and Rob Doak as co-chairmen. With the assistance of Kingston lawyer David Hurley, an initiative to establish charitable status for the MILL began immediately. On June 30th, 2004 (June Chithalen’s birthday), government approval was secured for the name “The Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library.” The Letters of Patent for Joe’s M.I.L.L. were approved by the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services, Ontario, on September 17th, 2004 (Eleanor Chithalen’s birthday).
Joe’s MILL was designated as a charitable foundation and registered on May 5th, 2006. The “AJoeShow” logo, along with the “outline sketch of a brimmed hat lying on the sound box of a guitar,” were trademarked on March 31st, 2010.
In its early days, Joe’s M.I.L.L. benefitted from the skills of librarians Bindu Joseph and Alan Wong, and then totally lucked out with the arrival of Renaissance man Roger Eccleston, who continues to hold the helm. The success of the Musical Instrument Lending Library is also due in large part to a succession of dedicated and hard-working members on the Board of Directors. Joe would be honoured to know how much time, inspiration and effort have been dedicated to the institution which bears his name.