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Forest Grove music teacher Leonard Ostwalt lays down his baton

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: JOHN SCHRAG - Leonard Ostwalt picked up his baton for one final concert last Wednesday at Forest Grove High School.Retiring band and orchestra director Leonard Ostwalt — “Mr. O,” as his students affectionately call him — has a gift for reaching young people through instrumental music education.

Whether working his students hard on a new piece of music, telling a rubber-chicken joke or conducting a concert, there was never any doubt he had a passion for creating music and for teaching.

After 13 years in the Forest Grove School District, the leader of the band will lay down his baton June 14, the final day of the 2013-14 school year for teachers.

“It’s been a rewarding career,” said Ostwalt. “I’m going to miss the kids.”

Ostwalt and his wife, Ella, came to Forest Grove 13 years ago from Dillon, Mont., where they had lived for 25 years. “I taught music in Dillon, and Ella taught music in nearby Helena,” said Ostwalt, who holds master’s degrees in music education and school leadership. “We went to a job fair in Spokane, Wash., and I sent my resume to Forest Grove. I had my principal’s certificate, and was actually looking for an administrative job when they called. When some high school band members asked Ostwalt about his multiple responsibilities earlier this year he told them that he didnt consider the time he spent conducting students to be work, but, rather, fun.

“I got to thinking about it, then thought about it some more, and decided I just wanted to stay in the classroom.”

That career path seems to have worked out well for everyone. While Ella Ostwalt taught elementary school music in the district, Leonard began helping older students explore music, first as a dedicated band instructor and, later, as the orchestra director as well. District Assistant Superintendent John O’Neill — a former principal at Forest Grove High — said Leonard Ostwalt has had a major impact on the lives of students.

“Whether it was music instruction at the elementary school, band at the middle school and high school level, Pep Band, Jazz Band, Concert Band, conducting in the orchestra pit during the spring musical, school-wide pep rallies or an endless number of athletic events, he has had a significant and lasting impact on the quality of our education program as a whole,” O’Neill said.

Many students and parents in the Forest Grove School District credit Ostwalt for keeping the band and orchestra programs going strong through some difficult budget cuts over the years.Last Wednesday, May 28, parents, former students and friends assembled in Ellen Stevens Auditorium at FGHS to watch and hear Ostwalt conduct his farewell concert. As a surprise, longtime volunteer percussion instructor John Schneider had a line of bucket drummers play his original composition, titled “A Final Bucket Gig for Mr. O.”

Principal Karen Robinson reminded the crowd that Ostwalt had spent years running the music programs at Tom McCall Upper Elementary, Neil Armstrong Middle School and the high school. “The district is going to have some big shoes to fill,” she said.

At the conclusion of the concert, the audience members rose to their feet, applauding. “A standing O for Mr. O!” quipped one alum.

Parents had high praise for Ostwalt as a teacher and as a person. “I have two kids in the band program, one in eleventh grade and one in sixth grade,” said Karen O’Donnell. “Both of my boys enjoy band a lot.”

They would describe Ostwalt as “nice, energetic and awesome,” O’Donnell noted. “I overheard one sixth-grader say, ‘No, he can’t retire! No one else will be as nice.’”

Laurie Loughmiller said her son Parker had Ostwalt from grade 5 through grade 9. “I asked him why he likes Mr. O, and this is what he said: ‘He is very patient and kind. He always lightens the mood and is an excellent conductor.’ I would add that having the same teacher each year has strongly influenced Parker’s love of music.”

High school student and band assistant Hannah Woods called Ostwalt a “fantastic director and teacher for both band and orchestra. He always comes to class in a good mood, no matter what. He makes the best out of what he’s dealt, and doesn’t complain about it.

“He has brought the Tom McCall Elementary School kids up to a higher standard, and shaped and molded them and the middle school students to be prepared for what high school band is all about.”

Ostwalt’s sense of humor shines through as well. “He’s always cracking jokes in class,” Woods said. “He has taught me that in order to become great at anything, not just music, you have to practice all the time.”

Associated Student Body band representative John Heun said he first met Ostwald in middle school. “Even then, he always pushed us to play our best. In high school, he kept pushing me, making me a better musician and student. Longtime volunteer percussion instructor John Schneider (left) paid tribute to his friend by writing a special drum-line song for the final concert, A Final Bucket Gig for Mr. O.

“I can never be more thankful to him. I will miss him, all his little jokes, anecdotes, and his love and passion to create music.”

Adding to the accolades, Superintendent Yvonne Curtis said Ostwalt had “meant a lot to the students in the music program over the years. He has a passion for keeping students engaged in music, and we are so grateful for the dedication and commitment he brought to the band and orchestra programs.

“He has made a real difference in the lives of so many students, and he will be missed.”

And Neil Armstrong Principal Brandon Hundley called Ostwalt a “consummate professional and an exceptional teacher” whose dedication “has been instrumental in creating excellent opportunities for our students. His voice, experience and passion will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.”

Ostwalt will join his wife in retirement this summer, and the pair will do a little traveling, he said. “Ella wants to go to New York City to see Ellis Island, where her parents arrived in America. We have a son here in the Portland area, a daughter and a granddaughter in Fresno, Calif., and parents who still live in Montana.”

Following his final concert in the district but before his last day of class, Ostwalt took in a concert by one of his idols, James Taylor, last Friday in Portland. “I never thought I’d get a chance to see him,” he said.

In the coming months and years, he and Ella will probably take a cruise or two, he said, “and I really want to go to Las Vegas and to see a NASCAR race.”

Ostwalt added that he’ll keep active playing the French horn in community orchestras and groups, do some substitute teaching if needed and clean the garage at his home, which is only three blocks from Forest Grove High.

In between, he’ll no doubt reflect on more than a dozen years of music education in town.

“Teaching is an art,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve mastered it, but I have had former students come back and tell me I’ve made a difference in their lives.

“On good days, you’re paid to do something you love. Most days are good.”

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