Matt Miller - The Archives
The life lessons Mr. Trautwein taught me
The Washington Post, March 23, 2011

This is a story about the power of a teacher, the power of love, the power of memory, and the power of Facebook.

On Monday morning I learned that the teacher who did the most to shape my life had died. George Trautwein was just short of his 81st birthday. He was the choral director and also the impresario—no, the Imperial Ruler—of the musicals we did at mighty little Blind Brook High School, a public school in what was then called Rye Town (now Rye Brook), a commuter suburb north of New York City where I grew up. I know I don't do much singing and dancing in this column, but from 8th through 12th grade Mr. Trautwein was the central figure in my development as a person, and as a persona. He was a larger-than-life patrician personality from the Main Line outside Philadelphia who imbued in his charges an enduring passion for singing, performing and theater. As a byproduct he taught us to pursue excellence in—well, in everything.

Mr. Trautwein was my model for integrity, professionalism, discipline and exacting standards, though I never could have articulated this at the time, because it was all transmitted by osmosis. His energy and passion were electric—as was his commitment to a certain silliness in the pursuit of the serious. As he led us through productions of "Where's Charley?," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "Carousel," "The Boyfriend" and "Trial by Jury," Mr. Trautwein also taught us the virtue of occasionally deploying a bit of contrived borderline madness in the service of one's goals. (The man was known to throw plastic chairs high against the wall and yell at the top of his lungs when we disappointed him, for example, tricks that have been generally dropped from the pedagogical playbook, but which certainly got our attention).

Being in his orbit altered my life, and baked things into who I am as a person (and bestowed sources of lasting joy) that I could not have gotten from my parents or from any other source.

I heard of his death from a friend who sent a link to a Facebook group where those whose lives Mr. Trautwein touched were sharing remembrances. And, like many of my former classmates, I've been mesmerized reading the posts on the site in the days since—from hundreds of students, from other teachers and from administrators who were there back in the day. Most of them are people I haven't talked to in decades, all convening to pay tribute to a man we loved, and who loved us, and who changed our lives.

Reviewing these remarkable posts has made me see there were lessons in management, motivation, love and humanity in Mr. Trautwein's teaching, all conveyed through his remarkable example, and buttressed by his bedrock belief in our individual potential that lay beneath his often gruff and always demanding exterior. All of this wrapped up, of course, in the musicality and enthusiasm that gave his pupils a lifelong passion for Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole Porter, the great American musicals, and classical vocal works from madrigals to spirituals to Bach and more. Improbably, amazingly, we even had the chance to sing this stuff in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as part of a choral competition during our senior year. Our ragtag crew had no business having such sweetness coaxed from our voices, but somehow Mr. Trautwein did it, and we did it for him.

"We go on!" was his battle cry, a call to persist that rings down to this day. "We plod on, undaunted," was his drier, one-eyebrow-raised version of the same. "Rude, crude and unattractive!" was his all-purpose critique of unacceptable teen behavior. "I don't care if you loathe me," he would intone melodramatically, in another trademark line. "But by God you'll work for me!" So we did.

All this has made me rethink my attitude toward Facebook, which, admiration for Mark Zuckerberg's achievement aside, usually gets a bad rap in Casa Miller. "Why are you spending your entire life on Facebook?" is the usual context in which the site gets mentioned, as we command (okay, beg) our daughter to "turn... the ... computer ... off ... NOW." Mostly it seems our 14-year-old and her friends look at photos. Endlessly. Now, marinating in the Facebook-enabled mourning and celebration of a great soul's passing, I'm calling her in to look at 30-year-old pictures of Dad playing Pooh-Bah in "The Mikado."

On long flights nowadays you'll find me listening to Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas on my iTouch, conducting it like Mr. Trautwein did in his heyday, while people on the plane look at me like I'm crazy. Who cares?

In a corny coda to this column I was going to say that Libya and Japan will be here to fret about next week, but Mr. Trautwein won't be. But that's not right. I can't really say I miss him, because we hadn't spoken in years. Yet not a month has gone by when I haven't thought of him with gratitude. We blessed Blind Brookers from the late 1970s and 1980s can't really miss Mr. Trautwein because he's always been with us, and always will be. Since what he gave us is transmittable, he'll even be in our kids. Makes me smile and cry all at once to realize this.