This time, it was Pat Wilhelms’ turn to be entertained.
Hundreds of former students and well-wishers turned up en masse Saturday night for a surprise gala production in honor of Aberdeen High School’s retiring choir teacher and director. She is leaving the profession after 27 years at the school and 37 years in teaching — the first 10 across the street at St. Mary’s School.
For months, her former students have been surreptitiously holding scores of rehearsals. Many were here on the Harbor, but because those ex-students are now scattered on the four winds, some were held in the Seattle area, some in Vancouver, Wash., and some took place over the internet via Skype. The former students pulled off a surprise, two-hour performance featuring 19 musical numbers in honor of their former teacher and mentor.
“I had no idea, I really had no idea,” Wilhelms said of the surprise show, noting that her husband, David, had a big hand in keeping the secret from her. “I was clueless. It was the most amazing thing and I’m so humbled by it. I haven’t seen some of these kids since they graduated. I can’t believe how many people knew about it and nobody squealed.”
The event was the brainchild of Aberdeen High graduates David Devine (class of 1996) and Kristi Waite (1999). With the help of many others, it had been in the works for almost a year, when the former students caught wind of Wilhelm’s impending retirement.
“It’s amazing that so many people knew and we were able to keep it a secret from her,” Waite said of the production. “We were all excited that she was as surprised as she was Saturday night.”
Waite said the show was crafted to show the highlights of Wilhelms’ career.”
“It brought so many people together,” Waite said. “We had people from more than 20 different graduating classes who came from all over the United States. And we all had the same stories about learning from Pat; they just happened in different years.”
“People just got so into it. It shows the value of a good teacher and how much they can influence students,” Waite said. “It shows how valued an educator can be and how important that person can be in hundreds of students’ lives.”
“It was an incredible evening,” said Derek Cook, assistant principal at the high school, who has worked alongside Wilhelms for 20 years and had to keep the secret for months on end.
He said one of his methods to keep from fibbing to Wilhelms over the past few months was “simply avoiding her.”
Cook said it was Wilhelms’ husband who had the most daunting task.
“He was the one who had to look her in the eyes all these months without saying anything,” Cook said with a laugh, “while, meanwhile, holding all these secret communications with the organizers.
“Knowing Pat, she may have had an inkling, but I don’t she had any sense of the magnitude of the event,” Cook added.
“Pat’s life was on that stage that night,” said Cook, summing it up nicely. “The fruits of her efforts made that event possible. One of her former students told me, ‘I’ve heard all those songs before, but never sung with that much love.’”
Wilhelms, who won the Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Education in 1990, was inducted into the Washington Music Educators Hall of Fame in 2004 and was honored as The Daily World’s Citizen of the year in 2008, says she will miss here students the most.
“It’s very surreal,” Wilhelms said of her impending retirement. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, and I don’t know that it will hit me until next September.”
“I’m really, really going to miss my kids,” she said of the generations of pupils she has mentored in music. “I’ve really had a charmed career. I can’t believe it’s been 27 years here.”
Along with her 37 years as a teacher, Wilhelms has been a major force for decades in the Harbor performing arts community.
She is one of the founding members of 7th Street Kids, performed for years with the Civic Choir. She was also the longtime choir director at Hoquiam Presbyterian Church.
But she’s also been a force away from the Harbor, having taken the Bobcat choir on numerous trips to perform in New York’s Carnegie Hall and the nation’s capital.
Wilhelms may be retiring but she plans to remain quite busy both in and out of the community.
“I’m looking forward to it because I have a lot of stuff I really, really want to do,” Wilhelms said. “My husband and I want to travel some, but the biggest thing is that I really want to start an all-city, elementary school choir.”
She heads into that busy retirement with a great send-off.
“I am so thankful for all the people in the community and administration at Aberdeen High School who have supported the program for all these years,” Wilhelms said. “I’ve been very spoiled.
“These students have given me back 100-fold what I might have given them during my career.” she said. “I’m so blessed. It was worth every single second. It was such a blast.”