If you created a song from the life of newly retired choir teacher Mary Purdy it would sound a lot like the last verse of Huey Lewis’ “Heart of Rock & Roll.” Only her lyrics would be “Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, New Mexico, California, Elsinore, Morro Bay and San Fernando.”
Mary Purdy was always going places — even from childhood, moving a lot thanks to being a pastor’s daughter — but when she began her career in music education she made sure the kids were going places too. Not only does she have numerous students from her 26 years at Canyon High School who went on to study music in college, but she literally took them places — a lot of them — from her first year as Canyon’s choir director. She led choir trips to: Hawaii, New York, Chicago, Orlando, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Boston, San Antonio — some of those more than once.
“I attended three trips: a Mexico cruise, Orlando Disney tour and Vancouver,” said former student Danny Jaramillo, who graduated in 2004. “I had such an amazing time on all three.”
As many of her former students will contend, Mrs. Purdy didn’t need a change of scenery to keep it lively. It’s what happened in the classroom day-to-day that made a difference for them.
“She has helped in more ways than she knows,” Jaramillo said. “I credit her with the reason my voice has grown into what it is today. She gave me a rock solid foundation of skills that I still use to mold my ‘instrument’ whenever a piece of music I need to learn comes up.”
Jazz vocalist Natalie Mendoza, 25, said it was one of her last days in Mrs. Purdy’s class that inspired her to become part of multiple college choirs.
“I remember singing with Madrigals in rehearsal and feeling my voice open and fill out in a round and resonant way that I hadn’t quite felt before,” Mendoza described. “Mrs. Purdy heard this difference and stopped the rehearsal for a moment to tell me in front of the choir that I had finally started singing with my true classical sound and that I would sing that way in my college choirs. I hadn’t even considered singing in choir in college at that point, but her words propelled me into the notion that music would inevitably be a part of my college career. I became a music major, studying both classical and jazz voice, singing in five different choirs during my college years.”
Purdy earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from California State University, Northridge, and in 1977 got her first teaching job in East Los Angeles at Stevenson Junior High School. In 1981, she joined the William S. Hart Union School District as a teacher at Sierra Vista Junior High. Nine years later, Purdy began teaching English at Canyon High School, and took on the choirs, which were, at the time: Women’s Chamber Ensemble, Concert Choir with about 35 students, and Treble Choir, which was for beginning singers. The small, exclusive group, Madrigals, met in the evenings. In 1994 she added the Men’s Chamber Ensemble.
This year has been a big one for Mary Purdy. She retired in June and was recently recognized as the William S. Hart Union School District Teacher of the Year. While her excellence in the classroom is rewarded by Hart leadership, what her students remember is that her classes were anything but “business as usual.”
“I remember, quite vividly, that Mrs. Purdy would spray the contents of her water bottle on you if she heard you playing ‘Heart and Soul’ on the piano,” Jaramillo said. “The people ‘in the know’ would always stop what they were doing and look to watch her reaction when someone unknowingly played the trigger song. It was comical!”
Andrew Taban of Canyon Country has similar memories after four years in the classroom with a teacher he calls “feisty.”
“If you said something out of turn she would chase you and spray you with water,” he said. “One time I ran out of the room to escape. When I went back in the classroom, my backpack was soaking wet.”
There was a different vibe in choir than in other classes, students say. It may be, in part, because music is an elective, but it had everything to do with Purdy’s style.
“I think that most people would think every day in my classroom was pretty crazy,” Purdy said. “We did a lot of laughing each day.”
The biggest takeaway for her students, however, was her generosity of spirit, and the benefit to them personally.
“She didn’t care who you were, she wanted to be there for every one of her students. … She loved every single one,” Taban said. “We adored her.”
The choir room doors were open for teens to spend their free time, and she developed relationships with students that continued after graduation.
“Mrs. Purdy and I share a birthday and EVERY SINGLE YEAR I receive a birthday card in the mail from her that is signed “birthday buddy,” Mendoza said. “She called me that in high school.”
But Purdy’s playfulness had substance.
“Besides the obvious music skills … I learned how to be an adult as a student under her guidance,” explained 30-year-old Jaramillo. “Empathy, punctuality and personal responsibility are three poignant character traits that I can say she nurtured in me!”
That positive feedback might be enough for a lot of retirees to, deservedly, consider it a job well done and relax. But that isn’t Purdy’s way. She keeps moving, no matter what.
“I haven’t finished cleaning out closets, so I’m not bored yet!” Purdy joked. “I have to say that it is really weird. I don’t miss getting up at 5 a.m. or going to faculty meetings (no offense, Jason!) or professional development that has nothing to do with what I teach. I like being able to read my Bible every morning and the newspaper at my leisure. However, I really miss seeing the kids and making beautiful music with them.”
Mary Purdy has been “making beautiful music” with her husband, Wally Purdy, for 44 years. They have planned a trip to Hawaii and a cruise to see the fall colors in New England (a time of year educators rarely get to travel, she points out).
Mary and Wally, who is executive vice president at the Bank of Santa Clarita, checked with the State Teachers Retirement and found that she would receive the optimum benefit by retiring in 2014. But, that year was the groundbreaking for a brand new Performing Arts Center on the Canyon High School campus.
“Since I had been involved with the design from the beginning, I wanted to see all that planning come to fruition,” Mary Purdy said. “I wanted to be able to perform in it for one entire year, so that was when I retired.”
Canyon High School’s new choir teacher, Kelly Caswell, is a Valencia High School graduate and was one of Mrs. Purdy’s student teachers.
“I knew that she was a person who knew the program and would work with the established traditions and would have a long, successful career at Canyon High School,” Mary Purdy said. “When she came to meet these kids, they fell in love with her immediately. She is talented, nice, fun, kind, caring, everything you would want in a choir teacher.”
Canyon students will never again join Mrs. Purdy onstage for a teary farewell singing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” And they’ll never again watch Mrs. Purdy navigate such choir tour snafus as the time the door to their airplane door broke off (resulting in 110 students finding alternate transportation to NYC).
But they will make memories with Ms. Caswell, while Mary Purdy keeps moving in her own, new direction. So far that means daily walks with friends, helping her mother-in-law and singing at Grace Baptist Church and the Santa Clarita Master Chorale.
And while the “heart of rock & roll is still beating” for Huey Lewis & the News, Mary Purdy’s heart is still beating the way it always has … filled with purpose and generosity, impacting whoever gets the pleasure of her company, wherever she goes from here.