ARLINGTON -- It would have been the perfect retirement party for Arlington High School orchestra founder and director Linda Keefer.
Except she has no intention of retiring.
Instead, she and the 200 former student musicians who gathered from around the country to serenade their longtime mentor Friday night called it a reunion concert celebrating her 40 years -- so far -- as an Arlington teacher.
The one-hour event, which almost filled the high school auditorium, capped a full day of music and laughter, starting with rehearsals and giving way to pizza and reminiscence, then more rehearsal. The concert featured all the ex-students and their instruments crowded onto the auditorium stage, where they performed A Christmas Festival and Bacchanale -- a favorite from orchestral competitions past -- and other pieces, with Keefer conducting.
"It's going to be really hard for me to retire someday," said Keefer, who has headed the orchestra since 1976. "After 40 years, I still look forward to it. I get to get up and hang out with the best kids in the world, play awesome music and get paid for it."
Keefer, whose brother is district fine arts director Bill Huff, has made her mark on many during her long tenure in Arlington.
It began in 1972, when the West Texas native with two years of teaching experience became one of four Arlington instructors under music supervisor Dean Corey and helped establish an orchestral program in the elementary schools.
Four years later, when the first music students advanced to high school, the instructors started the first orchestras at the district's high schools.
Since then, Arlington High School's program has grown from one orchestra and 11 strings players to seven orchestras and 280 players.
"Arlington is one of the best-known towns for their orchestra programs, and it all started with her," said Kayce Jones, a 1989 graduate and former member of the orchestra, which regularly wins sweepstakes at University Interscholastic League competitions. "She was a hard teacher; she worked us. But we were better for it. When you are so good that you are getting standing ovations from UIL judges, it leaves an impression on you. And she was the leader of it all."
Cheryl Kinney, who along with Jones planned the reunion for more than a year, called Keefer a "mother figure."
"We were a group, and she made us feel that we belonged," Kinney said. "She's been there for a lot of people. She came to my wedding."
Keefer also attended the funeral of Kinney's older sister, who was murdered a year after Kinney graduated. "She wanted to let me know that she loved me and that I was one of her kids. She took a day off for me just to make sure I was OK."
Diversity in numbers
The reunion drew more than 30 years' worth of orchestra graduates back to the district's oldest high school. There were lawyers, teachers, computer techs, a dermatologist, many of them toting violins and cellos that had gathered dust in their closets for years, even decades.
Kinney and Jones, lifelong friends who hadn't touched their violins in more than 10 years, brought them into daylight only recently to rehearse.
"It took a bottle of wine to do that," Kinney said, laughing. "But it's like riding a bike. It came back to us."
Not all had left music performance behind. Keefer's son Nathan, who now is assistant orchestra director at Martin High School, joined in with his cello, as did her violinist daughter, Trisha Beckham, who plays fiddle in Austin country bands and repairs stringed instruments.
Among those returning with musical bragging rights was Jason Lichtenwalter, now an oboist with the Colorado Symphony. At the first rehearsal, punctuated often by laughter and applause among the players, Lichtenwalter captivated the orchestra with his mournful solo that introduced the bacchanal of Samson and Delilah.
His colleagues -- and Keefer -- erupted with cheers, which is not standard behavior at her regular high school rehearsals. Keefer then told the rest of the orchestra to pick up where the solo ended. No need to start at the beginning again.
"I think he's got it," she said, prompting another raucous delay.
There were a few other interruptions, like when the percussionists had to haul in some equipment they had located late.
"Is there anything else you need?" Keefer asked.
"A margarita," someone replied. More laughs.
It was the perfect tribute, Keefer said. "It's been even more than I could have imagined it could be. Everybody is having a great time, and they sound great," she said. "I will always remember it."
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641