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Murray Journal

UHSAA recognizes Murray High’s director distinguished service in theater

Feb 07, 2022 01:52PM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High theatre director Will Saxton gives a thumbs up after he learned in a letter that he was Utah High School Activities Association’s Theatre Educator of the Year. (Photo courtesy of Will Saxton/Murray High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Shortly before 2021 ended, Murray High School theatre director Will Saxton was interrupted while teaching a class by Murray High Principal Scott Wihongi, who walked into his classroom in front of his students with a piece of paper in his hands.

“He said, ‘Guess what? You won,’ and showed me a letter congratulating me,” Saxton said.

Saxton learned he would be receiving the Utah High School Activities Association’s Theatre Educator of the Year. The award, which began in 1987 to honor individuals for their service and contributions to high school activities, was slated to be bestowed upon him Jan. 12 in Orem.

“It’s a huge honor,” he said, comparing it to the Murray School District Pinnacle Award he received in 2017. His appreciation parallels those who give Academy Award acceptance speeches.

“I would thank my administration, my family. I’m really lucky to have a wife, who is also a theater teacher and understands some of the crazy hours we have to keep, and she has always been very supportive of me. I would thank all my students that I’ve had throughout the years; they’ve all played a part in making me who I am and making me a better person and better teacher; you can’t become a better teacher unless you have good students,” he said. “Sometimes they give advice in Academy Award speeches, so I would say, find something you love and make sure that you do it.”

With Saxton’s journey as a teacher, there are people who have played a key role in his success in a profession that he is passionate about.

Saxton was nominated for the award by principal Wihongi.

“He wrote a glowing nomination letter, but just the recognition from my administration is really what I see as validation,” he said. “This feels good because they’re the ones who see me on a regular basis, they’re the ones who observe me and see the work I put out. You always want to be valued by the people you work with and people who you work for.”

In the nomination letter, Wihongi outlined Saxton’s dedication and commitment to the program, adding that all students are welcome to participate.

“He is an advocate to all of his students and expects them all to work hard supporting the program and each other,” Wihongi wrote. “Students who go through his program are fortunate to learn from his experience and have emerged better people because of it.”  

The same administration stood by Saxton during spring 2020 and this year while he went through cancer treatments. 

Wihongi addressed that: “The treatments took a toll on his body, but he remained committed and available to his students through virtual technology so they wouldn’t fall behind…especially in the middle of the pandemic. He produced a wonderful musical despite the challenges, and we can’t recognize him enough for that.”

Saxton said that administration worked with him so he could teach from home and coordinate having Amy Girard come in to teach in person and direct that fall’s musical.

“I’ll never be able to thank her as much as she deserves to be thanked,” he said.

Saxton also said he was grateful for the support of his family, including his wife, who suggested he switch careers from one in management to teaching theatre; he has taught for 19 years, the last 16 at Murray High.

“I wasn’t happy at all (with his former career) and decided I wanted to get back into theater,” he said. “I just wanted to be doing something that I love. My wife had been telling me for years I should go into education; I guess I finally decided to listen to her.”

That journey included returning to school to add to his bachelor’s in theatre with a minor in communication from Southern Utah University. Saxton earned his master’s degree and teaching certification from the University of Utah, while teaching at Morgan High School and Morgan Junior High. After his certification, the State Board of Education endorsed him to teach theatre and speech communication and he began teaching at Murray High.

“I love doing theater and that’s the advice I always give students when they say they’re thinking about going into education: make sure you teach something you love,” he said. “I enjoy teaching communication, especially public speaking—it’s another kind of performance class. I like the flexibility that teaching gives me in terms of spending time with my family, and I love helping students learn and see them improve. When you teach the classes I do, the growth is really clear and evident. I’ve been able to live out my dream of being a theater person and being in education.”