Westlake’s Music Man Thomas F. Hill, a Legend in the Lives of Westlake Students
A time-honored tradition of Westlake Schools Music Programs took place last Saturday, May 7, with the annual renewal of the venerable Music a la Mode – a day-long program featuring every music group in the district.
Held at the Westlake High School Performing Arts Center (PAC). Music a la Mode highlights the musical talents of band, orchestra, and choral groups in grades 5-12, and is the largest fundraiser for the music programs in our schools. The Music A la Mode epitomizes the mission statement of the Music Boosters. “To support and promote the arts through musical education and performance in our schools, for all students, in all grades, and in all forms.” The student performances began at 10:25 a.m. and continued until the last group performed beginning at 7:50 p.m. Of course, ice cream was served!
A highlight of the 66th annual Westlake Music a la Mode held at the Westlake High Performing Arts Center last Saturday was the performance of the high school dance choir, Company D. This talent contingent of singers and dancers was one of the many Westlake Schools music groups to perform during the day-long event that featured every music group in the school district. Band, Orchestra, Choir and all Pre-K-12 music programs enjoyed time on the stage. The event is the biggest fund-raiser of the year for the Westlake Music Boosters. Plus, ice cream and cake are served to make it a special day of celebration. Folks were thrilled that this year’s format was finally back to normal and attendance was once again open to everyone.
Thomas F. Hill, Music a la Mode and MUCH more!
Over the past year I have had the pleasure to write about many of the early Dover/Westlake families and individuals that helped to make our town the wonderful city it is today. Westlake is unique in many ways but the underlying theme that is conveyed by many when asked “why do you like Westlake?” ends up to be the people and all it has to offer. The early settlers paved the way for this to happen but there have been many families and individuals in more recent years that have done so much for our city and its residents. One of those individuals that touched the lives of many families and especially the students of Westlake was Thomas F. Hill, Westlake’s school music director from 1954-until the end of the school year in 1987. He touched the lives of thousands of students during his 33 year career…not only by teaching them music but by teaching them about life.
Tom and his family lived in Bay Village where he attended the Bay schools and graduated from Bay High School in 1946. Tom was an outstanding trumpet player and was the 1st chair trumpet player while in High School. He grew up in a home surrounded by music. His mother played piano and violin and his father had studied piano. Tom’s three brothers and a sister all developed a love for music but Tom was intrigued by all aspects of music. Tom started his music career at the age of 8 when he began playing the bugle in a junior drum and bugle corps. Tom also served in the U.S. Army following graduation and was a member of the infantry in Italy and then auditioned for a position as a trumpeter in the 98th Army Band. For the last 8 months of his service he was stationed in several cities during the occupation forces in Italy after the end of WWII. Tom graduated from Ohio University in 1952 with a Major in trumpet and a Music Education degree. He continued his studies at OU and earned his Masters Degree in Music Education in 1953. Tom was an accomplished Trumpet and French horn player with an outstanding tenor voice. Before being hired in Westlake in 1954 Tom taught one year in Mansfield.
When Mr Hill arrived in Westlake he took over the entire band program. At that time Westlake only had music classes in two buildings. By 1966, a new high school had been constructed and Tom was in charge of all the bands from 1966 until 1973 and all the choirs at the high school from 1968-1987. He was also coordinator of the entire music department and at the high school he was conducting two bands, 3 choirs, and teaching music theory, conducting and humanities! Tom was married to Virginia Taylor, a Westlake Kindergarten teacher, and they shared two children, Suzy and Bill, along with 3 beautiful grandchildren. Tom was an avid sports enthusiast and loved golf and baseball!
In 1955, Tom was instrumental in organizing the “Westlake Band Boosters.” In 1962 the name was changed to “Westlake Schools’ Music Boosters” to incorporate all the music groups…bands, orchestras and choral groups.
In 1955, a parent, Andy Dorko, worked diligently with Mr Hill to launch the group and the promotion of music throughout the community began! Their first big program began in 1956 with an outdoor festival of music. This event was to be held at Reed Field (currently behind DIS) on the 3rd Saturday in May. It was called an “Old Fashioned Ice Cream Social!” The Boosters built a bandstand decorated in red, white and blue and the audience sat in the bleachers. The Boosters, along with Mr. Hill, all dressed up in clothes worn in the 1890’s. Unfortunately, this day, as would many in the years to come, began with temperatures in the 40’s and ice cream was not in demand.
The next year the day was scheduled again and it was raining. It happened again in the third year and the program was moved inside. At this point Westlake only had 2 elementary schools and a combined junior and senior high so moving indoors was not a huge issue. Only the bands were part of these early days.
In 1959 a carnival type atmosphere was added to the festival with booths and games…and the weather was beautiful! Choirs were also featured this year. But upon evaluating the event it was felt the carnival atmosphere took away from the band performances so the carnival format was eliminated. The event had moved between Hilliard School and Dover School for the first several years.
By 1962, the “Music A la Mode,” so named by Mr. Hill, was moved to the new high school! But the unlucky rain on the day foiled the outdoor lawn chair concert. From 1963 on the program moved inside and was held in the gymnasium! The program continued to grow…good music, large audiences, ice cream and delicious cakes donated by the parents. The program concluded with a grand finale combining the High School band and choirs performing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic!”
In 1970, two special elements were added…a feature of a senior piano soloist, Patricia Smith Friedli, performing the Warsaw Concerto on the new baby grand piano and a special performance of the 1812 Overture with simulated cannons and bells. Quite the finale!!
In the 1980’s Jazz Bands and a Show choir named Company D was added. His programs always concluded with his wonderful choirs singing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You!”
Students of Mr. Hill can recall the many idiosyncrasies he used to teach us. Pretending to take his director’s baton and use it as a tire jack to raise up a “flat note” or using that same baton as a knife in his back to tell us a note we played was “sharp!” No one felt as “tough” as Tom as he stood outside on a frigid day in his short sleeved white dress shirt and tie as he led the marching band! He also had a nickname for many of us that carried into adulthood as he was always interested in what his students were doing. He displayed patriotism, love and honor to all he knew and he never forgot you.
In 1987, the year Mr. Hill retired, he was honored by his former students at the 32nd Music A la Mode. Alumni from both the bands and the choirs from the classes of 1957 through 1986 attended coming from as far away as California and Florida. Mr. Hill received many awards that night. He was presented with the “outstanding band member award” which was named in his honor, a $1000 Bach trumpet was presented to the high school to be used by the 1st chair High School trumpet player and a scholarship was awarded in his name.
Tom also wrote the band arrangement for the Fight Song and Alma Mater that Westlake performs today!
Retirement did not slow Tom down. He continued to share his love of music and teaching. He was the conductor of the Bay Village Community Band and he personally invited many of his former students to join him. In 1995 he was inducted into the Westlake High School Honorary Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the Elyria Symphony Orchestra, the Westshore Chorus, the Fairview Civic Chorus, the Lakewood Symphonic Band, the Bay Community Band and the Westlake Christian Church Choir. Following his retirement from the Westlake schools he also taught at St Mary School in Avon and Messiah Lutheran School in Fairview Park. Tom was also active in the Bay Mens Club and he was a Church Elder at his church.
Mr. Tom Hill taught so much more than music. Following his passing in December of 2021, his students wrote many tributes indicating that he taught Commitment, Dedication, Pride, and that his students should live by their Actions and strive for Greatness. He was a teacher, and an organizer. He stood for musical excellence, achieving high standards, honesty and integrity, loyalty and love. Many of his students can look back and recall the lifelong lessons he taught us. We were blessed to know him.
It is an honor that today, Mr. Hill’s Music A la Mode, remains the Music Boosters largest fundraiser. Over the past many years the Westlake Music Boosters have…
- Allocated $10,000 to support Pre-K-12 music programs in our district.
- Purchased a brand new drumline for the Demon Marching Band.
- Purchased 6 baritones, a tuba, and an oboe for the DIS band program.
- Purchased a timpani for the LBMS band program
- Sponsored our WHS choral and instrumental groups at OMEA contests.
- Awarded over $4,200 for students to attend summer music workshops.
- Purchased Vibes and a Bass Trombone for WHS.
- Funded professional specialists to provide lessons at DIS on the oboe, French horn, tuba, & bassoon and a percussion specialist at WHS
The music program in the Westlake Schools has maintained a level of excellence largely due to the excellent music staff and the Music Boosters. Our community has reaped the benefits of these two groups for many generations!
Come enjoy this wonderful day of music…you will not be disappointed! Experience the vision Tom Hill had for displaying his students’ musical talents… and know you will leave with many of the gifts Mr. Hill wanted us to share… you might even hear his words “We’ll all be faithful dear Alma Mater” and you might even feel him extending the compassion he had for all as he would say…. The Lord Bless you and Keep You! Thank you for everything Mr. Hill!
****Thank you to the Westlake Music Boosters, Bill Robishaw and Mr. Hill for information contained in this article and to photos provided by Bob Tuneberg***
(Ed. Note: Mary Beth Price Schneidler is a life-long Westlaker, Westlake High grad, Westlake teacher and member of the Westlake High School Hall of Fame. She is a devoted advocate of all things Westlake).