Thirty-five years ago, an old window van pulled into the MHS parking lot, prompting rumors among the custodial staff that Ralph Atwood was hiring hippies. The new arrivals were actually two young music professionals who would become an integral part of RSU 18’s Visual and Performing Arts program.
Pam and Kevin Rhein always knew they wanted to live in Maine, but when they first graduated from Westminster Choir College, the Maine Department of Education encouraged them to get some teaching experience first and so they went to Reno, Nevada instead.
It wasn’t until Messalonskee High School’s then chorus teacher, Gerry Wright, went back to school to get his teaching credentials that the right opportunity presented itself. As Kevin Rhein tells the story, “I was doing the phone interview with Ralph Atwood and he, laughingly, said, “Your wife wouldn’t happen to be an elementary school music teacher, would she?” And I just said, “Actually, yes.” As fate would have it, Venise Hutchinson, who then ran the elementary music program was going on maternity leave. And so they bought the window van, loaded it with all their stuff, and drove 3,000 miles for two one year positions.
When the opportunity arose for Pam to continue on in her position the following year, she initially said no. “That year I had been the only elementary music teacher in the district. I went to every school, taught in the gym, two classes at a time to fit everybody in.” The district followed Pam’s advice to double the amount of music offered and split the position. Kevin, who had been hired to teach high school chorus in other school districts, decided to try teaching at the elementary level, “just for a year.” He stayed at it for 17 years, loving every minute of it, until the opportunity arose for him to return to the high school chorus, with his wife as his accompanist.
Ultimately, it was the climate of community and administrative support that kept the Rheins in the area. “We felt like this was an oasis here, there was so much family support of the music program, ” said Kevin. Pam added, “It felt like home pretty quickly.” When their two eldest children were in high school, Kevin was actually offered a high paying job in New York City and they seriously considered it. That feeling of community, however, and the feeling that they were an integral part of the educational experience in the district made the choice clear. “This is the place where we want to make music happen for children.”
And through it all the dynamic duo took the already strong foundation laid by their predecessors and continued to build. The MHS chorus, run by the husband and wife team, features over 125 students, and the select choirs are frequently presented with opportunities to sing in numerous places around the community and in such prestigious locations as Disney World and Carnegie Hall. These opportunities and the energy the Rheins bring to their work is something that has given numerous students the courage to follow their passions. MHS 2010 graduate Ryan Brown even followed in their footsteps by attending Westminster Choir College.
“The MHS music program was a gateway into the life I live today as a high school choir director,” said Brown. “The Rheins are excellent mentors who open the right doors for students to explore their hunger for artistic beauty.”