As an avid bicycle rider Patricia “Patty” Gill has done a lot of long rides. Thirty years ago, she rode a bike across the country from Seattle to Bar Harbor, Maine. But her longest ride will come to an end in less than two months, when she retires after 29 years as a music teacher in Riverside Elementary School District 96.
Last week District 96 honored Gill by naming the stage in the Hauser Junior High auditorium after her, christening it the “Patricia Gill Stage” at the April 17 spring orchestra concert.
The district’s music teachers also raised $4,500, all through donations, to commission piece of music from composer Brian Balmages to honor Gill.
At last week’s concert the Hauser orchestra, helped out by about 25 alumni, played the new piece “A Riverside Celebration,” for the first time in public.
The idea for naming the stage after Gill came from Hauser Band Director James Colombo and the other District 96 music teachers as a way to her work building the orchestra and her role in developing the music department in District 96.
“We thought that would be a nice way to show our appreciation,” Colombo said.
Gill didn’t know about the stage being named for her until District 96 school board President Jeff Miller announced it during the concert.
“That was a surprise,” Gill said of having the stage named after her.
Gill essentially started the orchestra program at L.J. Hauser Junior High School 20 years ago when she was named the school’s first orchestra director. Hauser is the only feeder school for Riverside-Brookfield High School that has a strings program for violin, viola, cello and bass.
“She basically took it from nothing to a really solid and thriving program,” said Riverside resident Darcy Lewis, whose two sons had Gill as a teacher and is herself a viola and violin teacher.
During her time at District 96, Gill herself performed on that stage many times. She gave an annual piano recital for her first 10 years, which then evolved into a faculty recital. Gill, an accomplished piano player, also accompanied the Hauser choir and played during many Hauser plays. She also managed the auditorium.
A Lyons native, Gill started playing piano at home as a child and began outside lessons at 9 when her skills surpassed those of her mother, who was her first teacher.
Her parents like to dance and enjoyed big band music and show tunes. They watched the “Lawrence Welk Show.”
“I cannot say I came from a musical family, but we had a lot music in the house when I think back on it,” Gill said. “There were always records playing, so there was a lot of music in the house.”
As an eighth-grader, Gill was invited to play piano with the orchestra at Costello School by her music teacher, Jane Rubin, who had a big influence on her.
“I knew since eighth grade that I wanted to be a music teacher,” Gill said. “I had an orchestra teacher that I really liked and I wanted to be like her.”
As freshman at Morton West High School in Berwyn, Gill began playing the cello. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in music education, she taught general music for two years in Houston.
Then she earned a master’s degree in music education at the University of Oklahoma. She took violin lessons for seven years.
Armed with her master’s degree, she moved back and worked for two years as a music teacher at Morton East and West but then was let go because of cutbacks.
“I was very heartbroken,” Gill said.
Gill couldn’t find another teaching job at a time when many schools were cutting back because of the declining enrollment. She decided that she might need to find another career.
So, while working odd jobs, such as playing the piano for a ballet company, giving private lessons and waitressing at the now-closed Enzo’s restaurant in Brookfield, she earned a two-year degree in data processing from Morton College.
She also worked at an Oak Park bike shop where she met a bicycle mechanic named Rick Gill, who became her husband a couple of years later.
She applied for both teaching and data processing jobs, not knowing what direction her career would take.
“I sent out resumes to both places and I thought whatever comes through is what’s meant to happen,” Gill said.
District 96 offered her a job for the 1989-90 school year as a general music teacher, which she happily accepted. Gill initially was hired to work at Ames, Hollywood and Blythe Park schools.
After nine years, Gill was transferred to Hauser to become the district’s first teacher primarily assigned to teach string instruments.
Teaching junior high age kids is always challenging.
“I just that think that gamut of abilities and emotions and growth is so varied in junior high,” Gill said.
Former students say that Gill pushed them to do their best and made them better musicians.
“She always worked really hard for us during class, and made sure we knew more about music, not just our instrument, but theory, which really helps us moving forward as musicians, not just as instrument players,” said former Hauser student Elizabeth Murphy, now a junior at Riverside-Brookfield High School who plays the violin.
Gill served as the president of the District 96 teachers union for seven years. She said that she saw the value of unions firsthand as a child, when her father got a union truck driving job and doubled his income.
“I just really believe in the philosophy that unions build the middle class,” Gill said. “I think my family is a testament to that.”
It was not easy at times leading the union, especially during turbulent times. Gill, a quiet person by nature, said that being union president was a tough job then.
“I did the best I could,” Gill said. “You work as hard as you can and you just don’t always get the result you want.”
Gill said that District 96 has been a great place to work.
“I really felt that I have had wonderful students,” Gill said. “Parents are supportive, administration has been very supportive and I’ve head great music colleagues.”
In retirement Gill, 57, hopes to play the piano more, both at home and in public. She looks forward to having more time to attend cultural events. Gill and her husband have signed up for afternoon subscriptions to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera.
In June Gill and her husband will go a bicycle trip in central Illinois. They also will probably plan a trip for September to ease the pangs of retirement.
When September rolls around it will be strange for Gill not to be at a school.
“I’ve been in school since I was 5,” Gill said. “I never had a year when I’ve not been in school in some capacity, either as a teacher or student.”