Father Tolton Music Teacher Gets Only Good Notes

Related Story

COLUMBIA - The brand new Father Tolton Catholic High School began classes in August, but finally opened its doors at the new building around Thanksgiving. Since then, music and laughter can be heard floating down one of the first floor hallways. This music room belongs to Pat Wackenhut.

Wackenhut is the music, band and theater teacher at Tolton High School and has made many new friends along the way. Not one person had anything bad to say about the fine arts instructor, and every student asked claimed Wackenhut was his or her favorite teacher.

So what sets Wackenhut apart from the rest? Sophomore Aaron Arms said it is her ability to make the students feel comfortable.

"I think it's having the ability to relate to kids and being able to tap into them, so to say, and find their weaknesses, how to make them happy, how to get inside of them and make them feel good about themselves." Arms said.

The teenagers in Wackenhut's class seemed to be lacking any of the inhibitions usually associated with high schoolers. Students commonly volunteered to sing vocals, play the keyboard and guitar. The years of musical experience ranged from beginner to 12 years of practice, yet everyone played and learned together.

Wackenhut said she has an open door policy in regards to who could take her classes.

"I set it up so that any student that has a love or desire of music, come on in, I'll find you a place." Wackenhut said.

Only freshman and sophomores attend Tolton now, so the classes are relatively small. The last class of the day has just three students in it. However, throughout the school year Wackenhut's classes have grown due to her contagious personality and the encouragement she offers to all who walk in the door. Student Hannah Jones said she makes everyone feel good.

"Mrs. Wackenhut says everyone has a beautiful voice. She said that some people may just not be used to your kind of voice. So she said you can't get in trouble for trying because what are they going to say? You tried too hard?" Jones said.

There is no denying Wackenhut is talented in the vocal department.

Wackenhut said she grew up in a very musical household. Her grandmother and mother both could play the piano by ear. Wackenhut said her mother sang in the choir for 40 years and although she has since passed away, no one sits in her seat at the church to this day.

"The neighborhood kids had to come and pay a penny to get into the backyard. My family was known if you wanted good eats, music and to socialize." Wackenhut said.

Wackenhut started training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia starting at age 11. The Curtis Institute was ranked fifth in a 2010 survey ranking the top music schools in the nation. Juilliard ranked fourth. Wackenhut trained in classical music and performed in memorable roles such as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Wackenhut was eventually hired as a featured performer at Harrah's in Las Vegas. She worked alongside big names like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. She worked at Harrah's for 20 years. Wackenhut was looking for a music director when she was introduced to pianist, Fred Wackenhut. Eight months later they were engaged.
Now, Pat's family lives at the Lake of the Ozarks where her son attends high school and her husband is the liturgical music director at Our Lady of the Lake. Pat commutes to work at Tolton High School during the week.

Wackenhut admits it is hard to leave her family during the week to work in Columbia, but she said she saw the chance to start up the fine arts department at Tolton High School as a wonderful opportunity. She said she believes it is very important for children to experience the fine arts in schools.

"I hope no one ever believes that the arts are not important in the growth and the development of young minds and young people." Wackenhut said.

And Jones said she could attest to this.

"In sixth grade I was shy, somewhat, and I started playing music. And I had more people that I never talked to me come up and compliment me. So it helped me open up to people a lot more. Now I've become a social butterfly as people say." Jones said.

Wackenhut said she loves watching her students succeed, and she will never forget what her grandmother once told her that helps her do just that.

"My grandmother said, 'Pat, you have a gift to sing, but I think you're gift is to bring people joy. So if you need the voice to tell a story, always elevate people.' So I keep that in my mind, I use it in class, it breaks the ice. It always, as the kids would say, keeps it real."