Patty Sundstrom never had a choice about becoming a musical geek.
Her parents, Bob and Nancy Neisinger, were longtime music teachers and performers on the Twin Harbors. She began playing violin at 9 years old, joining the Grays Harbor Symphony at 15.
Her father even had her on stage at age 5 — her first role was as a townskid in “The Music Man.”
But while an appreciation of music can be instilled and nurtured by others, a passion for it must grow from within. Inside Sundstrom, grow it has.
She’s known by many names — Sister Mary Amnesia from “Nunsense,” Carlotta from “Phantom of the Opera” and even Mrs. Sundstrom to her students. While there’s much more to the Twin Harbor native and longtime Hoquiam High School history and drama teacher, music and performing are central to her existence. And, as a teacher, that passion has grown in scope into a talent and desire to share it with Harbor youth.
She helped build Hoquiam High School’s annual musical program from the ground up. She’s also played an integral role in the summer musical program at the Bishop Center at Grays Harbor College to provide the next stepping stone for kids like those in her high school program, working with the likes of Brad Duffy, Bob Richardson and Bill Dyer.
When she isn’t in the classroom, orchestra pit, on stage or in the director’s chair, you might find her on the golf course, or relaxing at Mason Lake with members of her extended family. But at any given moment, it’s only a matter of time before she steps back into the theater for her next project.
Harbor is home
Sundstrom, who just turned 50 a few weeks ago, was born in South Bend while her parents were teaching band and choir at Raymond schools. A few years later, the family found themselves in Aberdeen, Bob Neisinger at Grays Harbor College and his wife, Nancy, beginning a 27-year elementary music teaching career in the Aberdeen School District.
She may be a Grizzly now, but Sundstrom graduated a Bobcat. She married her high school sweetheart, Dan Sundstrom, who is now a second-grade teacher at Robert Gray Elementary in Aberdeen.
Sundstrom began her teaching career in Rochester in 1986, moving to Hoquiam schools in 1991. Though hired as a history teacher, her penchant for the stage drove her new principal — who had been an assistant principal at her former school — to ask her to start a drama class.
“We did little baby steps until we felt that our program was developed enough to do musicals,” Sundstrom recalled. “We started doing the musicals and we’ll never go back, because … so many kids can be in them, and they’re so fun.”
Her father stressed that, and for Sundstrom, that’s what the high school musicals are all about — getting as many kids on stage as possible. “That’s her whole reason for doing this,” Neisinger said, “for kids who just have no other opportunity.”
As for Patty and Dan, they didn’t necessarily plan to end up back on the Harbor after growing up here. As with many things in her life, they just worked out that way. Coming home to the Harbor also provided an important family element for the Sundstroms and their kids, Taylor and Colton.
“Both of our families were from here, so our kids had the opportunity to have both sets of grandparents around,” she said. “I never grew up with grandparents, so I never had that extended family feeling. It was just kind of a natural fit. Things just happened really naturally. It was never a deliberate, ‘Hey, let’s live in Aberdeen.’ It just was what it was.”
In the classroom
While the stage is an integral part of her personality, Sundstrom is just as passionate about teaching. In addition to drama, she teaches American history, both the regular section and the Advanced Placement course.
“I hated history when I was in high school, I really did. I thought it was boring,” she said with a chuckle. “When I got into college I started taking some classes that I found much more interesting and I got excited about it.”
Regardless, her original ambition coming out of Western Washington University was to become a school counselor, with degrees in psychology and education. Sundstrom quickly learned that a different path might be a better choice for her.
“The role of the counselor is very important, but I think they also do a lot of scheduling and a lot of testing, and that’s not what I wanted to do,” she explained. “I really liked the connections with kids, but if I can make them feel significant and important and believe in themselves, I think I have a better opportunity of doing that here in the classroom.”
When she was still looking to become a school counselor, one of her advisers suggested she teach for a quarter so she had a better feel for it. She had so many credits in social studies that she was able to teach history. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I found out I could teach any part of history I wanted. So I really concentrated culturally … we talk about the music and the literature,” she said. “I think it makes things come alive a little bit more than just battles and things like that.”
But, don’t misread the outgoing and funny Sundstrom as an easy A. She takes teaching seriously, and, especially in her AP classes, she thinks kids need to be challenged.
“There are not enough classes that really push kids to have to struggle,” she said.
Sundstrom achieved the prestigious National Board certification as a teacher in 2008, the first at the high school to become certified. She’s one of just 13 teachers and counselors in the entire district with the distinction.
“We had teachers in our district do it before, but we hadn’t had anyone in our building,” said Hoquiam High School counselor and longtime high school musical collaborator Jill Smith. “I was her reader for a lot of her papers … and she kept kind of pushing at me — ‘you need to do this.’ And then she just wouldn’t give up on it. So the next year I signed up to do it.”
“Some people might say that they are intimidated (by her), and she is sarcastic and super smart and funny as heck, but I think she probably pushes people to do more than what they think they could do,” said Smith, who originally met Sundstrom when both of them were working on their master’s degrees at the University of Portland. “But even when she’s driving me crazy and you want to put your hands around her neck, she’s getting things out of people around her that maybe they didn’t think they were capable of.”
“You would hope that you would be that impactful on somebody else’s life,” Smith added.
Just like the music she loves, the act of teaching is a natural fit for Sundstrom’s personality.
“I figured out that I needed to do something where I’m with people, almost entertaining, I guess,” she said. “I’m pretty outgoing when it comes to dealing with people.”
“She’s just so multi-talented. Both my kids had her in school, and she was one of their favorite teachers,” said her longtime golf partner and friend, Gretchen Klein. “She challenges the kids … she pushes them … and the kids appreciate that.”
In a way, her stage and teaching careers fit perfectly.
“Teaching isn’t for everybody. You do have to really love kids, and you do really have to not mind being in front of people,” Sundstrom said. “For me that’s easy. I don’t mind being in front of people at all.”
Her upbringing and passion for music provides the glue that brings it all together.
“I tell my drama kids that on the whole musical geek scale, I’m like the epitome of a musical geek,” Sundstrom said.
Sundstrom didn’t do much theater in high school.
“After college I started doing a few musicals, before I had kids, and found out it was kind of fun. I like performing, and I like singing, and one thing just led to another,” she said. “If I had grown up being part of the theater — if the 7th Street program was around for me then — I probably would have done it.”
Because of her upbringing, singing was the easier part. But it wasn’t until she was cast as Maria in “The Sound of Music” that she really felt like she could pull off the acting part as well.
“I always knew I was a good singer, but I think that was the role that kind of made me think that I could do this, that I could be the lead,” she said. “I had to work at the acting a lot harder.”
Most recently, Sundstrom returned to Grays Harbor College stage as theater diva Carlotta in “The Phantom of the Opera” after about a 10-year hiatus — though she’d been appearing in the orchestra pit for much of that time. Her last college show was “Annie Get Your Gun.”
“People came up to me when I did Carlotta and said, ‘I had no idea you sang, because you’ve always played the violin.’ ”
But don’t confuse the diva character with his daughter, Bob Neisinger said.
“She’s in the pit just like she is on the stage. On stage she’s a leader. She’s also a very dramatic leader in the pit as well,” he said. “She’s such a dramatic violinist. She plays the violin like she dances.”
Being on stage may come relatively naturally, but it isn’t all fun and games. Sundstrom takes it all very seriously.
“People who aren’t involved in theater have no idea what goes on to prepare a show. And as an actor you really have no idea what it takes to be a director,” she said. “I’ve had all the different roles. I’ve been an actor, I’ve been the choreographer and I’ve been the director and they are all very different and challenging in their own right. People who sit out in the audience, they enjoy their couple hours and they have no idea the blood, sweat and tears that goes on to get those shows together.”
When she’s not on stage, backstage or in front of the classroom, Sundstrom likes to keep things simple. One of her favorite hideaways is the family summer cabin on Mason Lake.
“It’s pretty small, but it’s home away from home. We just really like the family thing,” she said. “We just do family stuff, all summer long. Some people save up to go to Hawaii every year, but we like going to the lake, reading a book and just hanging out.”
With Taylor getting ready to finish a second college degree at Western and Colton pondering which college to go to after he graduates from AHS, keeping that family feeling is more important than ever. Her kids have shared her passion for the stage from an early age. Sundstrom beams with pride telling stories of their theater exploits.
For Sundstrom’s 40th birthday, the family traveled to New York, and was able to see “Phantom,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Lion King” on Broadway.
“Taylor was 10 at the time and knew every word to ‘Millie,’ and we went to it and we got Sutton Foster’s autograph after the show,” Sundstrom recalled. “Then when Taylor was 15 she got to be in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ and she played Miss Dorothy and it was cool because we had seen the original on Broadway.”
Foster is a singer, dancer and Tony Award-winning actress who won one of her two Tony’s for her portrayal of Millie Dillmount in 2002. She currently stars in the ABC Family television series “Bunheads.”
Both of the kids have been in nearly all of the summer GHC productions she’s worked on. Most recently, they were both in “Legally Blonde” where Taylor starred as Elle Woods and Colton brought down the house as the heartthrob UPS guy Kyle.
But the extended family has gotten into the act as well, as her father has spent countless shows in the orchestra pit looking up at his grandkids.
Like in “A Chorus Line,” where Taylor was the girl who sang about shaking her maracas, and Neisinger was actually the one in the pit shaking maracas during his granddaughter’s song. And, in the same play, Colton’s character was the boy who sang about having gonorrhea — and every time he said the word gonorrhea, Neisinger had to ring a bell.
“I was a really proud mother,” Sundstrom said with a mischievous grin.
The extended family also travels to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland every summer — a traditional Neisinger Christmas gift.
“Ashland tickets when we started were three dollars, but now they are more and more,” her mother Nancy mused.
“We spend a week in Ashland golfing and seeing Shakespeare and rafting the Rogue River,” Sundstrom said with a warm smile.
Some might be surprised that Sundstrom is also an athlete and coach. Though she’s best known for her considerable success on the golf course, she didn’t pick up golf until college. She and some friends started with a group lesson, and golfing just stuck with her life.
“My husband and I started playing together, and it became part of our vacations,” she said. “Our vacations are all centered around microbrews (Dan’s passion) and golf courses.”
But it’s not just for fun. Klein said Sundstrom’s personality includes the competitive spirit.
“We can be in the middle of our swing and keep talking, but if we’re playing a tournament we’re more serious,” Klein said. “She’s really competitive, but the fun is still there.”
Proof need only be found in the countless HABIT golf tournament titles the duo shares. (“We’ve won a few,” Sundstrom demurs.)
She has coached volleyball in the past at HHS and also coaches girls golf. Dan coaches golf at AHS.
“It feels right”
Sundstrom recounted a story of a student in her U.S. History class who had a lot of energy — for one of his class projects he did an interpretive dance while presenting.
“It was fun, different and bold,” she remembered. “He had never taken a dance class before, and he told me that he felt comfortable in my class and knew that it was OK to take risks like that. I told him he would love drama and should try out for the play.”
His first was “The Wedding Singer,” and he’s since been in “Legally Blonde,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and is in the current cast for “Beauty and the Beast” at Grays Harbor College. He’s even been awarded a scholarship for a dance school.
“It’s so rewarding to be part of a story like his,” she said. “And there are lots of other kids.”
She’s directed and then gone on to share the stage with many of her former drama students, and the list will continue to grow.
“I don’t know where else we’d be,” she said. “We’ve talked, actually, about what would we do if we weren’t both teachers, would there be another career? Neither one of us can think of anything else. This is what’s right for us … it feels right.”
Then again … “Maybe I would be a lounge singer in New York City or something,” she joked. “I love jazz vocals so much.”
Though a lounge act may not be in the cards, there’s no doubt that, if she wanted to try it, she’d find a way.
“She’s irrepressible,” Smith said. “There’s not something that she’d be afraid to try.”
“Patty Sundstrom can probably do more in 24 hours than anyone I know,” Smith added. “I don’t know how she squeezes it in. She’ll take it on and juggle it all. And it all turns out great. Nothing slows her down.”
Dan Jackson, The Daily World’s city editor, can be reached at 537-3929, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.