Reprinted with permission of the Dallas Morning News
March 31, 2003
By Holly Warren, Staff Writer
In 1958, the choir students at Woodrow Wilson High School produced Oklahoma! as their first musical.
Marca Lee Bircher will close the curtains on her 28-year career as the school's choir director on the same note.
Ms. Bircher - who has produced 28 musicals with casts numbering higher than 100 students each - has decided to retire at the end of this school year.
"There comes a time when you think, 'I'd like to reclaim a little of my life while I can,'" she said. "It's nice to be able to call an end when you think it’s time."
The 66-year-old Dallas resident acknowledges that nearly 30 years is a long time for a teacher to stay at one school.
"I still enjoy the kids … I wouldn't have been there that long if I didn't love them," she said. "They either keep you young or they kill you. They've kept me young, at least at heart."
Last week, the Texas Cultural Trust Council recognized her years of dedication with the Texas Medal of Arts Award for Arts Education.
"It was just exciting beyond belief," she said, listing Charley Pride, Sandra Cisneros and Fess Parker among her fellow recipients. "I was in high cotton."
Former student Kelley Theriot, a 1996 Woodrow graduate, who now lives in Austin, was her escort to the reception.
"She makes you want to be not only a better student or better performer, but a better person," Ms. Theriot said. "In school, at the time, I don't think you realize how wonderful a teacher she is."
Ms. Theriot and her two older brothers all went through Ms. Bircher's choir program. They all starred in musicals each of their senior years, said their father, George.
"A lot of parents sent their kids to Woodrow because of Mrs. Bircher. She has had a wonderful, amazing impact on all three of our kids," Mr. Theriot said. "Whoever tries to replace her is going to have giant shoes to fill."
Ms. Bircher began teaching in 1957. She credits her parents - a preacher and a teacher - with her love of music, as well as her decision to teach.
She joined Woodrow as choir director in 1975, when she directed her first musical there. Earlier productions were on a smaller scale than the ones in recent years.
"We get not one red cent from the district," she said. "It wasn't quite as strong, community support, when I first got there. We had to raise the money just from the ground level."
But support has grown substantially. Parents and former students donate their time and effort to build sets, sew costumes and design programs.
"We are able to cover it every year because of wonderful community support and businesses as well," she said. "It helps to have good people. Those first two or three years, it was just us and the kids out there raising money."
Drama teacher Patti Hardman has helped with the choreography for about 25 years. She spent 14 of those years flying from California where she had moved, for weeks at a time to continue working with the musicals. She returned to Dallas and the school in the mid-1990s.
The two women have worked closely together and will both retire this year, bringing their era to an end.
Ms. Bircher thinks it's time to pass the reins and enjoy time with her husband.
"My original plan was to cut loose and do all the traveling I always wanted to do. It just depends on my husband, who's very ill," she said. "My time is so limited because of the nature of the work I do. He's been very supportive of my not being home all these years."
That was probably the main reason she is retiring this year.
"I feel good about leaving. I don't feel like I'm walking out on something."
MARCA LEE BIRCHER
Education: Abilene Christian University, bachelor’s degree; North Texas State College (now University of North Texas), master’s degree in vocal pedagogy.
Teaching career: Began teaching in Abilene public schools; joined the Dallas Independent School District at Woodrow Wilson High School in 1975; has produced 28 musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof, Crazy for You and Singin’ in the Rain, in which 180 gallons of water were sprayed onstage and pumped into the school courtyard.
Awards and recognition: One of 10 winners of the UIL Excellence Award, 1991; Texas Medal of Arts Award for Arts Education, 2003.