Residents seek to rename theater after longtime music teacher
A number of Wilton residents are asking the Board of Education to break policy and rename the Wilton High School Little Theater after retiring music teacher John Rhodes, and also hang a plaque outside the theater in his honor.
“The Wilton High School Little Theater has been John Rhodes’s incubator for developing dedicated students with amazing talent,” retired Wilton teacher and New Canaan Road resident Susan Graybill told the board at its April 5 meeting.
“We are respectfully asking that you honor John's contributions to our town and our school district by adding his name to a plaque outside the Little Theater doors to remind future students of his contribution in that space.”
Graybill was joined at the meeting by 14 community members, including Rhodes’s current and former students, who shared reasons why they believe the theater should be named after him.
Rhodes will be retiring at the end of this school year after spending more than 40 of his 50-plus years as a music educator devoted to building the Wilton Public School District’s music program.
Rhodes is the band director of Middlebrook School, but he was also instrumental in establishing Wilton High School’s Big Ten-style marching band in 1974. He told The Bulletin in 2012 that he had been inspired by an impressive marching performance he saw in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Since then, Wilton’s marching band has been one of only a few of its kind in Connecticut
In 2016, Rhodes and fellow district band director Frank “Chip” Gawle announced their plans to retire. Gawle retired at the end of that school year, but Rhodes stayed for two more years.
The Wilton Public School District’s Naming of District Facilities policy ( P-1331 ), revised by the Board of Education in November 2015 , states that the Board of Education “discourages the recognition of individuals or contributors through the naming of facilities or parts of facilities.”
“Instead,” the policy continues, the board “encourages the recognition of outstanding educators, alumni, volunteers or contributors who have made a significant contribution through such a means as placement of plaques, recognition ceremonies, halls of fame, etc.,” and the procedures for such recognition will be established by the district.
“I realize there’s a policy, but policies are there for guidance — there are times to make exceptions,” said Bryan Macdonald, whose two daughters had been students of Rhodes.
“John Rhodes is the reason my daughters love music,” said Macdonald, “and he’s done the same for thousands and thousands of kids.”
Macdonald said Rhodes “reached into the heart” of his daughters and “pulled out a lifetime love of music that continues to this day.”
One of Macdonald’s daughters recently told him she’s joining the concert band at Penn State, he said, “and she acknowledged that John Rhodes was the reason she's doing this.”
“John has impacted more children over 42 years — not in the school system, but in this community,” said Macdonald. “I truly can’t think of a more deserving person to honor in this way than John.”
Macdonald encouraged the Board of Education to honor Rhodes “in a way that is warranted and wholly deserved.”
“We are not here to challenge you or the policy. We are here to ask you to do the right thing for someone who has done the right thing for Wilton schools and the community for over 40 years,” said Pimpewaug Road resident Brenda Froehlich.
“Having grown through the schools and having personal experiences with John, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t stand behind this man 100%.”
Froehlich and her husband, Mark, also offered to provide financial backing for the plaque.
Thayer Pond Road resident Kim Hall read a letter her 14-year-old son, Jack, wrote about Rhodes, who had been his band teacher at Middlebrook and “helped foster a love of music.”
"I currently play tuba in concert band and I’m headed to wind ensemble next year, and I have Mr. Rhodes to thank for that,” wrote Jack, who “jumped” at Rhodes’s offer to learn tuba “halfway through seventh grade.”
Jack said and another student worked with Rhodes to learn the instrument and “within a month,” were “providing a new lower sound to the band, immediately improving the overall sound.”
“How he approached teaching us to play the tuba showed that he cared about both the overall band and each individual musician — and that’s not the only example of this,” Jack wrote.
“In his 40 years of teaching here in Wilton, Mr. Rhodes has become a legend for everyone who’s played in the band, and having the Little Theater renamed after him would provide a constant reminder of the energy and compassion he has brought to the band.”
Indian Hill Road resident and psychologist Susan Bauerfeld said Rhodes is “first and foremost” a “kind man of character,” who has “very quietly built inclusive, supportive communities in Wilton that have made a positive impact on the community as a whole.”
“These communities have not only encouraged the pursuit of excellence, but have made it easier to pursue, even for those who struggled — all this done quietly, selflessly and without any fanfare,” she said.
“I encourage [the Board of Education] to find a suitable, public way to acknowledge and recognize the contribution of this humble yet profoundly impactful community-builder.”
Wilton High School junior Ryan Biberon has played the saxophone for about six years and said “every single one of those years, Mr. Rhodes has been there” helping him progress.
“He’s been with me my entire band career — not only as a teacher, but he's really a friend to me ... and it’s really hard to find that with teachers,” said Biberon.
“Mr. Rhodes is way more than a teacher and I think it’s extremely important that he’s recognized for his 40 years of service … I think it's well-deserved.”
Biberon said he never expected to come out and “support a teacher like this before,” but for Rhodes, he said, “it's definitely worth it.”
“If there's one person I’d support that much,” he said, “it’s [him].”
Wilton High School junior Andrew Kelso said Rhodes’s contributions to the high school and his “passion for helping students discover themselves with music” has been “enormous.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with him in marching band, ensemble and jazz band — all of which he pours his everything into,” said Kelso.
“Music is not just a skill for an individual to master without help. It is a conscious exercise in teamwork and synergy that, at its peak, can be matched by few other artforms.”
Kelso said Rhodes’s contributions to the high school and its students “more than warrant his commemoration and recognition from the Board of Education.”