The first song Diane Marelli teaches her choir students at Riverside-Brookfield High School is “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” first performed by Elvis Presley. It’s used throughout the year as a warmup song and is traditionally sung as the final song of the Spring Concert.
On May 12, near the end of the RBHS Music Department’s annual Apollo Awards evening, Doug Pawlik, a 2003 graduate of RBHS, got up from his seat in the auditorium and began belting out the first words of the song.
Soon he was joined by Erin Smith Truesdale, a 2000 RBHS graduate. Then about 35 other RBHS choir alumni rose and joined in. Walking to the risers at the front of the auditorium they were joined by the three RBHS choirs singing the song that told Marelli how they all felt about their teacher who is retiring after 20 years at RBHS.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” said the 60-year-old Marelli with her voice briefly cracking as she struggled to maintain her composure. “It goes quickly. These students have been a lot of fun; they’ve been the joy of my life, besides my own children.”
Marelli leaving RBHS is the end of the era. She came to the school in 1996, two years after former band director Kevin McOlgan. The two, known simply as Mr. and Mrs. to generations of RBHS students, together rebuilt what had been a moribund music department. McOlgan retired four years ago.
When Marelli started at RBHS there was one choir with 35 students, three of whom were boys who never showed up at concerts. Marelli eventually built four choirs, before budget cuts forced one to be eliminated. This school year, 89 students are spread out among three choirs.
Her current and former students say that Marelli has made a permanent impact on their lives.
“She’s definitely one of the most charismatic and enthusiastic teachers I’ve had,” said RBHS senior Tom Loftus. “You can definitely tell in and out of the classroom that she really enjoys music and that this is what she was meant to do.”
Truesdale said that Marelli is the reason that she now teaches music and directs choirs at Hampshire Middle School.
“She was the kind of teacher that made me want to become a teacher,” Truesdale said.
Pawlik, a professional actor who frequently performs in musicals in the Chicago area, credits Marelli and McOlgan for his career.
“She really made me have a passion for music,” Pawlik said. “If it wasn’t for her and Mr. McOlgan, I wouldn’t do what I do.”
Marelli can be a taskmaster, but usually with a smile.
“I like things my way and I want them to be perfect,” Marelli said. “I’m very picky about how they perform.”
She works her singers hard.
“I’ve worked harder in her class than I have in a bunch of my others,” said Loftus, a member of the Madrigal Singers, the top choir, for the past two years. “But you definitely see the results and your hard work pays off with her.”
It was the same way for Pawlik when he was at RBHS. He and Marelli started a Men’s Ensemble which later became a victim of budget cuts.
“She has such a love for music and pushes you to try harder,” Pawlik said. “She pushes you to work a little harder than any other teacher.”
Marelli and McOlgan made a great team and are close friends.
“We had a great relationship,” Marelli said. “We just had kind of a like mind when it came to music. We never competed. We always shared students and we each other’s cheerleader and supporter.”
Marelli is a talented piano player who has accompanied students from all schools at district competitions and state competitions for the last 22 years.
“She’s one of the best,” said McOlgan of Marelli’s talent as an accompanist. “She’s recognized statewide.”
Marelli was only 3 years old when she began learning the play the piano at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.
“I don’t remember not reading music, I really don’t,” Marelli said. “I think I read music before I read written words.”
She participated in many piano competitions growing up. By age 14 she was teaching piano. In high school at Hinsdale South she was a band kid who played clarinet, but sang with the jazz band and with the choir for only one year.
After graduating from Western Illinois University in 1977 she got a job teaching music at Lace Elementary School in Darien, her hometown.
“I never thought I would teach anyone over 12,” Marelli said.
When she began having children, she left Lace School to raise her three kids. While doing that she also taught piano privately. When her kids got older she accepted a part-time job directing a choir at Downers Grove South High School and then taught music for a year at S.E. Gross in Brookfield.
She was hired as a part-time teacher at RBHS and told the job would never become full time. But within three years she had built up the choir program so much that she was hired full time.
At RBHS, she directed 17 musicals and two fall plays.
“Anybody who has ever seen a Diane Marelli production knows that it is of professional quality without a single detail overlooked,” said RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana at the Apollo Awards.
Marelli was a fierce champion of music and the arts and did not hesitate to speak out when she felt the administration or the school board was implementing cuts affecting music, a fact that District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis wryly acknowledged as he was presenting Marelli with her plaque designating her as choir director emeritus.
“Even when I didn’t want to work closely with Diane, I had to work closely with Diane because she’s an advocate for the arts,” Skinkis said.
Marelli worked hard with all her students, not just the naturally talented ones.
“She pushed me to be my best when I didn’t believe in myself,” said Lucia Valadez who graduated from RBHS in 2001. “I was a little insecure in choir, like I didn’t want to put myself out there, but she made me put myself out there.”
She never gave up on a student.
“She was a very determined teacher,” said Genesis Pasquesi. “When she saw talent in someone she would pester them until they realized that they were worthy of the talents that they had within them.”
RBHS band teacher James Baum, an RBHS alumnus, knows Marelli as a teacher and a colleague. Marelli served as Baum’s official mentor in Baum’s first years teaching at RBHS.
“For my first two years she was my official mentor, but she never really stopped helping me along and making me a better teacher,” Baum said.
For retirement Marelli has made no plans beyond a family vacation to Hawaii in July.
“I am not going to accept anything for several months, because I don’t want to make a misstep,” said Marelli, who also currently serves as a church pianist. “I want to know what I want to do.”
You can bet it will have something to do with music.