My sophomore year in high school, I became part of an organization called Girls Glee Club and Men’s Chorus. By the time I graduated in 1978, its name had been changed to Heights Singers. Political correctness had just cracked open the door.
For those three years, I had the privilege of learning from a master music educator named Bill Thomas. My senior year, I had the honor of serving as president of the glee club side of that 120 member equation. Dan Stashower was the president of the chorus side and together with Mr. Thomas, the three of us enjoyed a wonderful teacher-student partnership.
Over the years, Mr. Thomas was a powerful force and mentor to his students. Our winter and spring concerts ran for two nights each and were always performed to sold-out audiences. We took an annual spring tour to a different city every year, complete with a dozen adult chaperones that herded and controlled us like nobody’s business. In my own middle age, I marvel at what those parents did for us back then and what they put up with. Under the ever-watchful eye and precise instructions of our fearless leader, we piled in and out of five buses (a nod to Bus #1: “Heeeeeere’s Earl!”), numerous hotel rooms and various stages like well-trained soldiers.
Somewhere between the 6 a.m. wake-up calls, "mee ah mee ah mee” vocal warm-ups, the grueling twice-daily performance schedule (often in inner city schools) and rolls of ducts tape, we managed to sightsee, eat three square and visit numerous landmarks before room to room visits were made to assure lights out at 11. Our education never stopped.
Performing in Washington, DC by invitation to the nation’s capitol as we celebrated the bicentennial remains one of my most cherished memories. The echo of our collective voices singing in that rotunda of the senate brought chills to our spines. We were “Up with People” in a younger version.
Mr. Thomas was simultaneously a music director, therapist, educator, father figure and friend to countless students over the course of his 30-year career. He also was a perfectionist and disciplinarian who possessed as strong a sense of compassion as he did humor. The impact he made on so many cannot be overstated. He always had a moment (or an hour) to listen to a student who needed an ear. His was not only for music. His huge heart and enormous belly laugh could swallow a room whole. He was like the McDonalds of music: thousands and thousands served.
In the summers, he served as the director of Cain Park, a beautiful gem that is home to one of Cleveland’s most prestigious art festivals. Numerous plays and productions are performed in the lovely amphitheatre in the summer. I worked for him for two seasons as his administrative assistant and learned how to drive stick shift in a Cushman. I drove that little garbage truck out of that gorgeous park and home for lunch one day. Sure I could do so without getting caught, I only got busted because I stalled so many times on inclines at red lights that I was late back to work. Mr. Thomas was not a man to make mad. He could throw you over his shoulder and carry you across the stage while swigging a Diet Coke if you got him angry (for say, not running to answer the incessantly ringing phone quickly enough in his office). In spite of that, he was loved by us all. My senior year at Christmas, we gifted him with hundreds of bottles and cans of Diet Coke to feed his legendary and much-teased addiction.
Aside from teaching and serving as director of the Grace Lutheran Church choir, Bill was a devoted husband and an extremely kind, loving family man. In spite of his enormous responsibilities and demanding schedule, he was generous with his time and heart and a tireless champion for people and causes he believed in. I was one of many of them.
I learned of his battle with Parkinson’s disease a few years ago and friended his wife on Facebook. Jane was open with updates about Bill’s declining health and difficult battle with a disease that eventually robbed him of his ability to speak. He could barely move. While in Cleveland last summer, I saw him for the first time in decades. He was sitting front and center at Cain Park watching a group of middle-aged guys known as “The Doo Wops” performing songs from the 50’s on that balmy summer night. Those men were once his students. They were immensely popular and performed together for years at various venues. They reunited a few years ago and dedicate their concerts today to the man who helped them form their group and develop their talent.
During intermission, my sister Fran (also a former glee club member and officer) and I walked over to Bill and Jane to greet them. It was an emotional reunion. I will never forget the steely gaze of his piercing blue eyes. Words no longer existed for a man who once could talk you in or out of anything. His body was stiff, but Jane managed to stand and hold him up. His rigid arms extended out to me. I leaned into him and held him close.
At the end of my presidency in 1978, he had taken me aside and told me that I should be proud of what I had accomplished during my tenure. I had waited all year to hear him say those words – that he was proud. Now, more than three decades later, it was my turn. I told Bill that he had been a critically important person in my life; a man who believed in me, listened when no one else would and had made me a better, kinder, stronger human being. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I walked away. I knew I probably would never see him again but was so grateful for the opportunity to have had the ability to finally tell him what an impact he had made on my life.
Bill suffered his last of many strokes last Thursday night and never recovered. His son David announced his death on Facebook on Friday night March 25th. I wish I could go to Cleveland for his memorial service next Saturday, where I am sure thousands of former students and parents will turn out to honor this powerful force of a man and pay their respects to a teacher who touched so many people. Iris Rubinfield, an iconic GGC-MC parent legend herself (she directed the musicals), will be in attendance. I spoke with her earlier today and we reminisced about the old days and shared our memories. When I told her what was planned for the service she replied, “I won’t be able to stand it.” She and my sister will both have to do it for me, since I won’t be able to attend.
Our signature song, “Let it be Me” was almost always the last of every concert and became the encore (if we had performed well). It will be a heartfelt tribute when all those voices from 30 years join together in harmony to sing in honor of Bill Thomas one last time. I can’t think of a more fitting conclusion to an emotional service for a dearly loved man (who we often referred to as "King Bill") whose life has come to an end. They better not sing off-key. Bill will (still and) finally be conducting down to the last note, free of any restraint. I can only imagine the “alamem” chant that will break out afterword. It will be a beautiful sendoff (in any combination of red, white and blue).
Rest in peace, Bill. I hope and pray there’s a Diet Coke building in heaven. Your photo would certainly feature prominently in its hall of fame and a room in it would be reserved especially for you with the unmistakable placard on the door that reads, “William D. Thomas, Musical Director”.
Regardless, your fine legacy will surely take up more than the entire 4th floor of a place filled with much love. Thank you for inspiring, changing and touching so many lives.
In loving memory of William D. Thomas, August 24, 1942 – March 25, 2011.
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With apologies for many of the inside references, this post was written as a tribute and retrospective from an era for people who were part of the GGC-MC/Heights Singers. To my friends at OS: I have been insanely busy with a project that has taken up my time over the past two months and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I apologize for posting and running, but it's what I need to do and only wrote this because of the important role this man played in many lives, including mine. Hope to see you all sometime in May!