Musical educator, mentor dies tragically; family hopes accidental overdose can ‘wake’ others
An outpouring of support on social media speaks to the type of musician and educator Tina Thielen-Gaffey was — vivacious and talented and capable of teasing out performances from students they didn’t know they had in them.
But the death of the former University of Minnesota Duluth associate music professor and choral director last weekend, described by family in her obituary as an “accidental overdose,” was a tragic end for a person who touched countless lives, said her husband.
“If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone,” Jim Gaffey said on Tuesday. “Hopefully, it can wake somebody else up. That’s why we’re being brutally honest about it.”
Thielen-Gaffey, 50, was battling concurrent medical conditions and additionally struggled at times with depression after an acrimonious end to her 16-year career at UMD in 2015. She was overusing sleep medications and muscle relaxants, said her husband. Following her death, organs were harvested at a Duluth hospital and shared with four other people, he said. It was solace for Jim Gaffey, 49, and the couple’s two daughters, Michaela, 12, and Ella, 9, who their father said were being “resilient.”
He recalled Thielen-Gaffey’s pregnancies, the way she would surround the girls, still in the womb, with music and how they emerged gifted, curious and strong. He recalled the first night he met his wife, in Almond, Wis., where she was working her first job as a K-12 music teacher. They were introduced at a Halloween carnival and shared their first kiss by the end of the night. He recalled how he didn’t have a musical bone in his body and the balance they found in one another. He also described how such a bright light was dragged down by addiction after ultimately losing a large part of her identity.
“She loved academia — as a student, teacher and a professor,” Jim Gaffey said. “It was how she defined herself.”
After UMD, Thielen-Gaffey spent a year at the Drummond Area School District in Wisconsin, where Superintendent John Knight described her as “incredibly dynamic.”
“She had a lot of charisma and was talented in her ability to bring a love and understanding and development of musical skill in kids,” he said.
In Thielen-Gaffey, UMD found a teacher who taught students “how to perform and how to be great at it,” said Weber Music Hall technical director Don Schraufnagel.
Schraufnagel said Thielen-Gaffey could sing “like a champion” herself, and in his overlapping years of managing the sound at her students’ concerts, Schraufnagel witnessed her raise UMD’s vocal jazz ensembles, Lake Effect and Chill Factor, from fledgling outfits to acclaimed heights. Lake Effect even performed in New York’s legendary Apollo Theater in recent years, and in the Chinese capital of Beijing in 2010.
The Chinese audiences, filled with students and teachers from around the globe, stood in approval during the Lake Effect performance, Schraufnagel recalled, many of them wowed by their first exposure to jazz. The group later stopped foot traffic during an impromptu street-side performance.
“UMD vocal jazz was like rock stars in Beijing,” Schraufnagel said, before referencing Thielen-Gaffey by her well-known sobriquet TTG. “Four-hundred to 500 people stopped on the sidewalks downtown and listened to them without a PA system. That was TTG.”
UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams called the loss of Thielen-Gaffey “emotional” for her former colleagues at the school.
“On behalf of the university, we send our deepest condolences to her family and friends,” Williams said.
Former student Aine Miller, 24, is working on her own choral education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, which she’s attending following four years at UMD. Miller performed in both of Thielen-Gaffey’s vocal jazz ensembles, finding confidence under her director Miller never knew she had.
“The passion she got out of me for music, specifically for choral music, it was so invigorating,” Miller said. “She was the first choir director to truly believe in me and my abilities and she was a huge mentor to me.”
Testimonials like Miller’s have been appearing across social media as friends, family and students come to grips with a bright light cut to dark. Her influence on students has been described by some as exponential. Jim Gaffey said he could think of four marriages between students who met each other as part of his wife’s ensembles.
“She developed this crazy 16-year legacy,” Miller said. “Every concert we had was sold out. What we were able to accomplish would not have been able to be done with any other director.”
Fundraiser for the family
A GoFundMe online fundraising site has been established to help the Thielen-Gaffey family: www.gofundme.com/the-tina-thielengaffey-family
Read Tina Thielen-Gaffey's complete obituary here