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Spotlight: WCSU Class of 2023 graduate Angelo Natalie, former ‘Barney’ songwriter, finally attains a bachelor’s degree at age 71

Angelo Natalie at WCSU's Commencement
Angelo Natalie
Angelo Natalie

DANBURY, Connecticut — Like most of his peers in the Western Connecticut State University Class of 2023, Stamford resident Angelo Natalie is wrapping up his classwork and projects in preparation to participate in Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 14, at the Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport.

Natalie, who will receive a Bachelor of Music in Audio and Music Production from WCSU’s School of Visual and Performing Arts, jokes that he’s got about 10 days to finish his Senior (Citizen) Capstone Project. At 71, Natalie has about 50 years on most of his classmates, and his eldest grandson, Nicolas, at 20, is closer to the age of Natalie’s fellow graduates.

“This degree is the completion of something I started in 1970,” Natalie explained. “I graduated from high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, and attended Edinboro State College near Erie for three semesters to study music education. It was the early ’70s, and I was a rebellious, counter-culture student who pushed back at what I perceived to be institutional rigidity. I dropped out in my fourth semester, got married young, started having kids, and worked in faith-based music that was blossoming at the time.”

Natalie also started writing music geared toward advertising, put together a demo reel, and was hired by Hummingbird Productions, a “jingle house” in Nashville, Tennessee. After moving to Nashville, he found significant success as a writer, composing music and lyrics used in commercials for large national accounts including Dodge, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Hummingbird Productions moved him to New York to run their satellite office until the late 1980s, when he decided to freelance. His big break, he said, was when he was hired to compose the theme package for the A&E cable network — beating out big music houses for the contract. By the 1990s, his previous work for Cabbage Patch Kids led to Natalie being hired to write for the PBS hit show “Barney & Friends,” to which he contributed more than 30 songs, and when the people behind “Barney” launched a new project called “Boz the Green Bear Next Door,” Natalie contributed another 30+ songs to that. Contracts soon followed for toy commercials based on Nickelodeon shows like “Rug Rats and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Simultaneously, Natalie has worked as the music director for Living Hope Community Church in Old Greenwich for the past 31 years, while also giving private music lessons.

While his career had not suffered from his lack of a degree, he became friends with a professor in WCSU’s Nursing Department, who always extolled the music program and her colleagues in the university’s Music Department. Upon looking into it, Natalie realized that he would be eligible for a senior citizen tuition voucher and thought he might as well complete the undergraduate music degree he had never finished. “I wrote a gospel rock song called ‘I Shoulda Finished College,’” Natalie said, “and it was time.”

Natalie continued, “Music students have to audition and claim an instrument. And in February 2018, as I sat outside WCSU’s Visual and Performing Arts Center waiting for my audition, I watched the parents walk their teens in for their auditions and recognized that I was even older than the parents!”

Primarily a songwriter, Natalie proclaimed himself to be a jazz vocalist, which was a bit of a stretch, he said, and went through with the audition. Initially planning just to take the undergraduate music theory courses he never finished, Natalie decided to pursue an entire Bachelor of Music degree. “I’ve done audio music production my entire adult life, but by the seat of my pants,” Natalie said. “Now, with the arranging, music theory, audio and other classes I’ve taken at WCSU, I feel more equipped to produce my own material than I ever have.”

He said while a few students may have felt slightly uncomfortable with having a classmate close to their grandfathers’ age in the class, many gladly become his friend. “Really, I’ve been learning and preparing for tests just like any other student,” Natalie said. “I’m sure some people see me on campus and assume I’m a professor. Many people in my personal life think that I’ve been at WCSU working on a master’s degree or Ph.D., not an undergraduate degree.”

Graduation day will be a milestone for Natalie 53 years in the making, and most likely, he’ll have one of the largest cheering sections during the ceremony. Showing up to support him will be his wife of 50 years, Kathy; sons Derek, Todd and Michael and Michael’s +1 Ashley Cipollone; his daughter Julie and her husband Ernie Mulhern; and six of his seven grandchildren who range in age from 5 to 20: Brennan, Thomas and Patrick Mulhern; and Christopher and Nicolas Natalie (missing will be Caitlyn Natalie who has a travel softball tournament that day and daughter-in-law Kristin Natalie – Caitlyn’s driver). Also in attendance will be Natalie’s mother-in-law, Betty Sleppy. Natalie’s 94-year-old mother, Josephine Natalie, will be viewing the live-stream at www.wcsu.edu/live from Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I hear it’s common to decorate your cap for the ceremony,” Natalie said. “I’m going to have my 10-year-old grandchildren help me decorate mine.”

As the semester winds down, Natalie still has to finish his capstone project, a five-song EP in the Contemporary Christian Worship genre, and a “Designing Your Life” class — which prompted a classmate to ask him, “Why are you ‘designing your life’ at 71? Aren’t you supposed to be retired?” Natalie laughed and said, “Musicians don’t retire, they die. I just keep on learning new things. Not for a single day have I walked away from my classes here without learning something of value. When you stop learning, you start declining. With my amazing professors at WCSU, I have learned so much. I’m sincerely grateful to them.”

For more information, contact WCSU Public Relations at pr@wcsu.edu.


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