Pat Wilhelms, credited with developing a choral program through local schools that was known for challenging students to achieve higher standards than they thought themselves capable of, died Friday at the age of 72.
Wilhelms taught music in the area for 37 years, led the civic choir, helped start the successful 7th Street Kids musical theater program, led scores of high school musical performances and inspired young musicians who have stayed on Grays Harbor and taken the baton, literally and figuratively, to carry on her legacy.
One of the young people she worked with, Tamara Helland, now directs musical theater at Aberdeen High School.
Wilhelms taught for 10 years at St. Mary’s School, then 27 more in Aberdeen public schools, both the junior high and high school.
She won the Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Education in 1990, was inducted into the Washington Music Educators Hall of Fame in 2004 and was honored as The Daily World’s Citizen of the year in 2008.
She was also the longtime choir director at Hoquiam Presbyterian Church.
After retiring from teaching in 2012, she started the PocoVoco choir for grade school aged students.
Poco Voce means “small voices” and she was able to attract 58 of them in the first year of the choir.
She pushed at the state level to have the activities of music students recognized in the way that had been mostly reserved for athletic activities, and she was on the executive board of the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“She was the only music person on there, surrounded by those guys concerned with athletics and they got along famously,” said her husband, David. “She gave as good as she got.”
The Wilhelmses came to the Northwest from Illinois because David Wilhelms wanted to work as a forester, he said.
Bill Dyer, now a music instructor at Grays Harbor College, came to the Harbor as a band and choir teacher at Miller Junior High in Aberdeen. He inherited a choral program that Wilhelms started and had linked to the high school.
Wilhelms had a reputation for high standards and fought fiercly on behalf of her students and the program.
“The concert and jazz choirs were in her mold,” he said. “She was a mother figure for a lot of (her students). She just had this amazing influence on a lot of kids. She worked them really hard and they didn’t get away with anything.”
Dyer remembered that she often brought in professional guest artists that students in small communities wouldn’t normally be exposed to.
She also took students to perform in Carnege Hall in New York and in Washington, D.C.
Kristi Waite, Aberdeen High Class of 1999, remembers a Washington, D.C., trip with the school’s symphonic choir, that just seemed to make the world bigger.
“As someone who was 15 years old … I didn’t even understand what high expectations were,” said Waite. “Pat expected that of you and allowed you to deliver.”
She said Wilhelms’ programs taught students self-confidence. “When someone instills that and gives you that power in yourself and opens that up to you, it’s life changing and she did it in such a unique way, through music.”
Waite was one of the organizers of a surprise show Wilhelms’ former students, dozens of them, put together when she 2012 when she retired.
“As it came together, one of the coolest things for me to watch, was all these people whose lives were changed by her, who came back and showed her how they changed … and that what she did continued on” in the way they raised families and related to the world.
Tiffany Maki, who is working on a career as a jazz singer, was recruited by Wilhelms as a junior in high school and credits her teacher for the fact that she is still making music.
The standards were intimidating at first but “she told me, ‘I think you’re better than you think you are,”’ Maki remembers.
“She ran a tight ship and if we weren’t doing something right, she would let us know it and that’s why those performaces were so successful. She was a hugh force to be reckoned with.”
David Wilhelms said a memorial will be held, but a date hasn’t been chosen. He thought it was likely to take place in about a month.