Ask any retiring educator what they’ll miss most and chances are they’ll say the students. Wanda Whitener is no exception.
“I’m going to miss the kids horribly,” Whitener said during a recent interview.
Whitener is retiring after 30 years of teaching music at the Tremont Consolidated School. Before taking over the position in 1985, she worked for eight years as special education secretary for the Mount Desert Island school system, rotating from school to school.
In 1976, while working in that special ed position at the Tremont school, she met Ruth Grierson. Grierson, whose children were attending the K-8 school, was concerned about the lack of a music program. She had just begun an informal program within the school.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you come with me and we’ll split the paycheck,’” Whitener recalled Grierson saying.
The meager stipend they would split wasn’t much of an enticement, but the chance to share and teach music was. Music had been a passion from a young age; growing up in New York, she played piano and Sousaphone before finding “her instrument,” the French horn. After high school, she went on to study at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
Whitener and Grierson began teaching together one day a week. There were no instruments. The pair led the students in song and taught folk dancing in the gymnasium. Their tenure ended when a part-time music teacher was hired in 1978.
When Whitener was hired in 1985, she found the program hadn’t progressed much from the days she taught with Grierson.
“There was a violin, about five kids in the band and a huge chorus,” she said.
Along with teaching singing and introducing basic rhythm instruments, Whitener got busy finding string and band instruments and recruiting students to play them.
“It just kept growing and growing,” she said. At its peak, there were 72 musicians in the band.
Whitener also started a jazz band at the school, playing alongside two students in a trio. This year the band took third place in its division at the Maine State Middle School Jazz Festival.
The jazz band isn’t the only group to be recognized for its musicianship. The school band has received awards at national festivals.
“I’m so proud of all the kids that came through here,” Whitener said.
Whitener is leaving the classroom at the end of the school year, but she plans to continue making music. She’s played French horn with the Bangor Symphony since 1983, where she performs alongside her husband, trumpeter Bill Whitener. She also is a member of the Acadia Brass Quintet.
Whitener has two children, John, who is the principal tuba with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Bonnie, a professor of English at the University of Alabama.
Whitener’s retirement plans include writing and hiking. And she’s looking forward to a new companion.
“I want to get a dog,” she said. “I haven’t had one in more than 30 years.”