Al Aldridge taught ‘the importance of striving for perfection and seeking a little excellence on the way’
He was in a hallway outside of Gaiser Hall at Clark College on Sunday night when he heard the music.
Al Aldridge wasn’t even sure why he was there, exactly. He and his wife Jeannie were supposed to be going to dinner with some friends, but they had to make a stop on the way because one of the friends, who works at the college, had something she had to do real quick.
It would only take a few minutes, he was told.
So there he was, a little miffed at this delay, waiting in a hallway with Jeannie.
In the distance, music started playing. Hey, he knew that song.
“In a Mellow Tone” was one of Al’s favorites. He just had to find out who was performing.
One door was open.
Al Aldridge took the bait.
As soon as he walked in, a room full of former students, family, and friends cheered.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your guest of honor, Al Aldridge,” a man with a microphone said.
Inspired by the finale of the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, longtime Prairie and Battle Ground High School music teacher Al Aldridge walked into his own movie-like atmosphere, some 20 years after he retired from teaching.
“Absolutely overwhelming,” Aldridge said. “They had it completely hidden from me. I knew nothing about it. To see Gaiser Hall completely packed, people on their feet, cheering and clapping when I walked in the door, and me having no idea … pretty special. Pretty amazing.”
Former students, representing decades of talent, performed in his honor Sunday night.
They shared stories. They cried. They laughed.
“It kept me awake all night. I was pretty wired when we got home. I was really excited. A lot of tears. A lot of walks down memory lane. Real emotional minutes with several kids last night, and again today,” Aldridge said Monday evening. “It was a very heartfelt, special time. Probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”
And on Monday night, a few of the musicians got together for a jam session at Prairie Tavern, with Aldridge their special guest again.
Eric Sawyer, Prairie Class of 1989, put together this surprise that took almost all of 2022 to plan.
About 10 years ago, he was able to give a gift to Don Freeman, taking the Clark County baseball legend to Cooperstown, N.Y., to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sawyer said then that he always wanted to do something for another influential man in his life, Aldridge.
Aldridge, it should be noted, is well known and accomplished in teaching and coaching. He also coached the Prairie girls basketball team to six state championships. He was known as an intense coach, a disciplinarian, and one who demanded excellence.
He was the same in the music room.
It took time, but Sawyer would realize it was exactly what he needed.
“At the time, you’re a dumb kid and you think you know everything you need to know in the world. So you think this adult who is yelling at you about stuff, and doesn’t know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, or he’s just being mean,” Sawyer said. “But along the way, you figure, there must be a rhyme to his reason because we keep getting better and we keep winning. Winning is fun.”
That would be winning music competitions. A lot of them. All of them, it seemed. Sawyer said he cannot remember finishing second in any competition in his final three years of high school.
But it was not just about winning. It was about preparation, and expectations, and how all of that matters beyond the music room, beyond the basketball court.
“At the time, you don’t realize how much you are growing,” Sawyer said. “It just happens. You look back later, and you go, ‘I’m 10 times the person I am today than I would have been if not for him.’ You just don’t realize it in the moment.”
They all do now. In the band that played Sunday night were students from Battle Ground High School in the 1970s. Prairie opened in 1979, so there were Falcons from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Aldridge retired from teaching in 2003. But there were students performing on Sunday night from the 2010s and even a current student today — children of Aldridge’s students.
“I was younger. I probably didn’t realize the impact that this was going to have on these kids later in life,” Aldridge said. “I just had hoped they could understand what we were trying to accomplish and the importance of striving for perfection and seeking a little excellence on the way.”
Some of the stories recalled by the former students included some intense exchanges. It is possible that things were thrown in the music room.
“A lot of rumors,” Aldridge said with a smile, “but not necessarily a lot of true rumors.”
Sawyer also founded 100 Men Who Care, an organization in Clark County dedicated to supporting non-profits. With the help of Columbia Credit Union, Sawyer announced on Sunday night that beginning this academic year, there will be an Al Aldridge Excellence in Music Scholarship.
This year, the scholarship will be 100 percent funded by former students. Going forward, Sawyer said, the plan is to create an endowment. The scholarship will be for a graduating senior or two from Clark County who wants to pursue music in college.
If the scholarship goes as well as Sunday’s surprise, the scholarship will be in good order for years. Sawyer started working on the Mr. Holland’s Opus-like scene back in February. More and more people wanted to participate, but it also had to be a surprise. Not exactly an easy thing to do.
And then the moment happened. Jeannie Aldridge and friends did their part, getting Al to the hallway.
The rest … perfection.
“In your head, you plan something out, and you imagine how it’s going to play out. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen exactly,” Sawyer said. “It went exactly how I thought it would go.
“He couldn’t resist the urge to see who was playing the song. He poked his head in, and we caught him. The look on his face was magical.”
Al Aldridge still had a smile on his face Monday night, too.
His teaching made an impact that has lasted for decades.
This week, his former students, many coming in from all across America, just wanted to surprise him and say thank you.
With a performance from their hearts.
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