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Murray Journal

Murray High School Musicians Honor Teacher

Dec 08, 2015 08:26AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama

Murray - An untouched baton, a music stand missing a score and an empty podium took center stage in honor of Murray High School’s beloved instrumental director, teacher, mentor and friend, Rob Wilson, who lost his life after a six-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia. 

But that didn’t stop each Murray High School instrumental group that Wilson taught, as well as some alumni groups, that performed at Wilson’s tribute and memorial service Nov. 6 in the high school auditorium. Wilson was 42-years-old and had taught at Murray High for half of those years.

In speaking of lessons choir director Alan Scott had learned from his former colleague, Scott said, “Students honor the work of their teacher when they show they can perform music in his absence.”

Wilson’s battle was with AML, a cancer that starts inside bone marrow that helps form blood cells. AML cancer grows from cells that would normally turn into white blood cells. 

In August 2009, he was diagnosed and  decided to take a leave of absence to take care of his illness. After rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, in December 2009 Wilson had a bone marrow transplant, donated from his younger brother. 

That was just the beginning of a six-year battle where students and faculty rallied behind him, with personal notes, get-well wishes, memory books of photos and even making 1,000 cranes for good wishes for healing, which still hang in his empty classroom today.

“Rob expressed his greatest wish is to get well and come back,” former assistant principal Deb Sorensen said in 2009. “He has so many tender feelings about his students. He longs for the day to come back and teach.”

Wilson did rejoin students. Through his career, Wilson was honored with the Pinnacle Award, and this past spring he was named Murray School District Teacher of the Year, and is currently being considered for state title. However, he continued the treatments and struggle with AML. Last spring, he said after two transplants and a “mini-transplant,” he decided to try living a trial course, learning to live with constant pain.

“It’s hard to walk, hurts to lift the baton to direct, but I want to be here at school,” he said last May. “I live about five minutes from Park City High School and was offered a position there in the past which I’ve turned down. Murray is a great community and the school is great to work at, and I’ve appreciated the students’ and parents’ support in letting me know what is going on when I’ve missed class in the past. I’ve taught through five principals who have been supportive of the fine arts, and all I want to keep doing is what I love doing.” 

On June 1, he told his students to practice over the summer and find groups to play with, but most of all, keep playing: “(Music is) something that should bring joy to your life and to those around you.”

Wilson’s last day teaching students was Oct. 1.

Joining the instrumental groups were other Murray High performing arts groups and teachers, former students and Principal John Goldhardt, who thanked Wilson’s wife and daughters for lending him to the school. 

Goldhardt also recalled good times, such as how during the school musical performance of “Guys and Dolls” in 1998, he couldn’t get his part to blow a whistle on time, so Wilson finally just pointed his baton directly at him at the right time. 

However, the mood was more sobering on Oct. 27.

“When I walked into the band classroom to tell them students that Mr. Wilson had passed, I told them they needed to support and care for each other to get through it,” Goldhardt said. “I asked the important question, ‘WWWD — What would Wilson do?’ He’d want them to move forward with their music and pursue excellence.”

Pursuing excellence is one of the messages many students remembered Wilson telling them and showing them by example as he played in his own rock band.

Band member Harrison Hays remembered trying to play the guitar, only to struggle with it. One time, he said, while practicing in the band room, “Mr. Wilson came out of his office and said, ‘Harrison, I can’t stand it any more. Give me the guitar.’” After handing him the guitar, Harrison recalled Wilson taking the time to show him how to play it and helping him understand the rhythm, even though Wilson had other things he was supposed to be doing.

Similar stories of how Wilson took the time to help his students and colleagues were recounted, even though they all knew he was in obvious pain from the disease and chemotherapy treatments.

“I remember when Mr. (Richard) Tranter, who was then our principal (later superintendent), introduced me to Rob Wilson,” dance teacher Leesa Lloyd said. “He was cool, hip and had this ponytail. I couldn’t believe Mr. Tranter hired someone with a ponytail. I hoped he was ready to dive into a teaching career because it’s an enormous task, and for the last 21 years he was more than up to the task. Rob, himself, was a fine musician and he built up the music department. Year after year, he would demand excellence. But it wasn’t until these past six years where he has been sick that I truly understood his professionalism, his work ethnic, his passion and dedication he shared with students. There were so many days he shouldn’t have been here. He was in such pain, just lifting his baton. Yet he remained positive and we’d see him lead pep band in the evening and be here early the next morning preparing for homecoming. He just wanted to teach and share his passion of music — and he did.”

Early in the onset of his disease, when Wilson took almost a year away from his students, he would Skype them and received videos from parents of their performances. Theatre teacher Will Saxton recalled hearing Wilson’s voice in the band classroom and walked in to see his face on the monitor.

“He was completely bald,” Saxton said. “His famous ponytail was gone, but he was here. He said, ‘Hey Will,’ and I answered, ‘It’s good to see you.’ And it was.”

Saxton, who was hired after Wilson, was Wilson’s teaching mentoree.

“When I started here, he reminded me of people I grew up with, the rock ‘n’ roll kids of the 1980s,” Saxton said. “He had a great laugh and was always motivating students. He knew how to make people feel special and how to be inspired. I remember during the musicals when he was down in the orchestra pit, we must have driven him crazy, treating him like a CD. I’d ask him to have them play faster, slower, sound like this. He took it all in stride.”

The service included the singing of Michael W. Smith’s “Friends” with current and former music students, a video tribute and other reminiscences of how many times he would flip his ponytail during a band concert (students say 56 times); of how he was dumbfounded when a musical theater student said, “I can see you, I can see your wand,” instead of his baton, in the orchestra pit; of how he appreciated the little things in life, like getting a new printer at the school; of how he asked for perfection in practice so it would translate to it on stage; of working out athletic and extra-curricular schedules with band rehearsals; and of how he’d be humble, directing the pep band instead of accepting an award.

Saxton said students and colleagues alike were inspired by Wilson. 

“I learned to play the guitar a few years ago,” he said about his friend’s passion for playing the instrument. “I would have been better if I asked him to teach me, and he would have, but I didn’t want to bother him. But I was always seeking his approval so I’d go show him I learned how to play B minor and he humored me and pretended to care. I’d show him the calluses on my fingers that I was so proud of, and he’d say, ‘That’s so neat.’”

Saxton recalled being nervous when he decided to play a song once in front of his peers because Wilson was in the audience. Afterward, he remembers Wilson coming up to him and saying, “Rob, great job.” 

“He inspired teachers, teaching us it is never too late to try new things,” Saxton said before he played Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”

Orchestra student Hannah Sparks realized how many people he influenced.

“He won’t ever know the number of people’s lives he touched, not just those here in the halls or who have been here before us, but the ones we’ll influence and play for, and those who will be inspired by us,” she said.

Alumnus Richard Marsh remembered Wilson helping him play guitar learning “Johnny B. Goode” for the talent show, talking to him during pep band making him feel like “my best friend,” and being inspired when he heard Wilson play with his own rock ‘n’ roll band, Tenth Mountain.

“Even though his body was weak from chemotherapy treatments, he still knew how to knock it out of the park,” Marsh said. “At Murray, it was cool to be in the band and to have a rock star as a teacher.”