THOMASTON – One student sat at a drum set his feet dangling about a football’s length from the foot pedals. In the vicinity were two other students, one with his back to the front of the room facing the wall, another working on something, anything, instrument nearby.
It was the fall of 2007 and (Aaron) A.J. Bunel in his first year of teaching music at Thomaston High School looked around and absorbed what was his first band. He wasn’t expecting the Glen Miller Orchestra or even the Kingston Trio but he had clearly stepped into a challenge of epic proportions.
Fast forward 13 years to 2020. Roughly a quarter of Thomaston’s combined middle and high school enrollment of almost 400 students are now active and energetic participants in the music program. Where the town used to hire the Lewis Mills High School band to march and play at its Memorial Day ceremonies now a proud Thomaston High band does the honors. The chorus and band members provide the music at graduation ceremonies while in the past recorded music was used. School concerts once thought to be extinct like a civil political discussion have been resurrected. Music thrives now at Thomaston High.
“A.J. came here and revived what used to be a fantastic program,” said Thomaston High Principal John Perrucci. “It nearly died and he revived it. Of our 350-400 kids he owns 100 of them who take his classes and are in his programs.”
There is a lot of A.J. Bunel in Thomaston High’s musical comeback. His dad, Charles ‘Pink’ Bunel, calls him, “a grinder,” He doesn’t back down from a challenge. He usually succeeds and he’ll go the distance to make it happen. He is also one diverse dude. The hands are in many pots, a multi-talented person who is good at all of them. He doesn’t just do, he does well.
When Bunel saw his first band, he saw the big picture not just the small scene.
“I realized that kids enjoy music and schools are built around extracurricular activities that give schools their identity,’ said Bunel. “The second year we had 14 students and three went on to music programs in college. (Then Principal) Jim Wenker was a big believer in music and worked to create a schedule that created opportunities for the students. In the Middle School all the students had to take a marking period of music and Kate Zitney (elementary school music teacher) built a great foundation. In three years, our band went from 3 to 50.”
Bunel, a talented piano player in his own right (he likes Billy Joel a lot), has not confined his touch to just THS. He has worked often with the Warner Theatre in Torrington and Thomaston Opera House as a music director and plays the organ every Sunday for Our Lady of Hope Parish in Harwinton.
But there is much more to Bunel then the musical A.J. He is a former Teacher of the Year recipient at THS (2013), is the school’s Advisory Period coordinator and co-athletic director. Oh, and did we mention, he is head varsity boys’ basketball coach. It is a delicious plateful that does not go unnoticed.
“Small schools only succeed with people like A.J. who wear many hats,” said Perrucci. “People like A.J. don’t do it for the paycheck. When the rubber hits the road, he gets stuff done. He plans extremely well. His work ethic is a sense of completion and need to succeed and it is so strong that he can’t help himself so he spends time on his craft. He can be ultra-competitive and still avoid alienating people. A great sense of humor helps. People gravitate to him.”
There is a balancing act to it all. Bunel and his wife Alyssa have two precocious youngsters –future dancer and singer four-year-old Lily and always smiling James, a robust one and a half. Right now, Bunel finds time for it all.
“I have never thrived on down time,” he says. “I have had success in the go-mode. (My kids) help me slow down, but if I didn’t enjoy what I’m doing the wear would be greater. Alyssa does the time and a half as teacher and mom. I’m letting life run its course right now. I feel grounded in the commitments I have. I think if I take something off my plate it will take me out of balance and impact me in a great way.
Those outside the halls of THS know the basketball Bunel. They may not know he sees a connection in the unusual combination of music and basketball.
“They both emphasize the team concept of getting a group of individuals united in their goals and the knowledge that individual progress helps reach that goal,” said Bunel. They buy into the fact that their contribution feeds into the group. It motivates them to find success. Both are ensembles and both create art.”
Bunel got his hoop start at the Gilbert School (2001) where he was a top point guard and a member of state championships teams in 1998 and 1999. He got on board the coaching train with former coach Gary Franklin in 2011, before taking over as head man in 2014-15. Currently the Principal at Northwestern Regional, Franklin was and is a fan.
“I would work with A.J. in any capacity in education and athletics,” said Franklin. “Anything he commits to he will give 100 percent. When I got hired as basketball coach, I knew we had to get him on board. We met in the music room and he almost interviewed me to make sure we mesh. He values working with kids and his basketball IQ is through the roof. “
Bunel along with his brother and former Gilbert star, Jim, has made progress with a program that has struggled in recent decades. The Bears earned a spot in the state tournament in March with an upset win over Northwestern Regional in the final regular season game and then erased a 16-point deficit to defeat SMSA, 76-69, in the state tournament before Covid-19 crowned itself champion.
He has called on all the ingredients to make the program a success on and off the court.
“He has a great sense of humor,” said former player Jon Wilson. “He used to play `Pocketful of Change’ (Natasha Bedingfield) on repeat at practice on full volume during the week of the Terryville game to replicate the crowd noise.
One time he renamed our entire varsity roster and only called us those new names including in the game for a month. Even in school. Watching other teams and our friends be confused was really funny.”
Bunel also gets his teams to believe and when it works out, the face tells it all.
“He was always good at getting us to believe we could win a game even if the actual chance was pretty low,” added Wilson. “We never forgot the look on his face after big wins. You could always tell it meant the world to him when we came through in a big moment. Beating Terryville and Shepaug at home our senior year (2018) were huge wins.”
Franklin calls Bunel a master play caller and with a solid returning squad this season nobody is hoping this season will avoid Covid-19 cancellation more then Bunel. “I owe a few people,” he says with a laugh in anticipation of a little payback after being on the low end of the scoreboard more times than he cares to remember.
Down the road Bunel is looking to move into administration will complete requirements for his 092 certification in July. When the time comes, he will make the proper adjustments in a busy life to keep the necessary balance which he thrives on.
In the meantime, he will continue to teach, play, coach, instruct, be dad and husband filling up the day with a symphony of beautiful music void of most sour notes.
“You just have to respect him as a teacher, professional, coach, family man,” says Perrucci. “He’s willing to put the time in and constantly do something that benefits others. “
A regular jack of all trades, master of many. An appreciated show that keeps getting better.