Beloved orchestra teacher's legacy lives on at Chugiak High
“You may ask, how did this tradition start?”
— “Tradition,” Fiddler on the Roof
Back in the early 1980s, a cadre of bleary-eyed coaches chugged coffee before class at Chugiak High. One morning, the men were joined by the school’s new orchestra teacher Philip Burch, a man whose quick wit and genial grin had quickly gained him entry into the gruff group. As the men shot the breeze, the music teacher took out his bow and started to play.
There was a fiddler in the group.
“They liked it. So the next week, he did it again,” recalled Burch’s widow, Susan. “And then it was a year, and then it was two years, and then…”
“Philip was a fiddler,” Burch said during a reception honoring her late husband Friday, April 13, in the CHS faculty lounge.
He was indeed, but he was also much more — a mentor, a father, a trailblazer and a friend.
“Phil was my buddy,” recalled Tom Huffer Sr., one of the coaches who started the informal Friday bull sessions that have since become a cherished CHS custom.
“I learned so much from him,” said Jean Lenoir, who succeeded Burch as the orchestra teacher at Chugiak High.
“He was a big part of this community, and he really felt at home in this school,” said Burch’s son, Riordan, who, like his dad, grew up to be a musician and teacher in the Anchorage School District.
As the current crop of Chugiak teachers shared bagels at sunrise in the faculty lounge, Riordan and his daughter Ainsley provided the soundtrack — dad on the fiddle, daughter on guitar. Laughter and chatter brought the beat.
Burch moved to Alaska in 1984, after serving in the Navy during Vietnam and earning a master’s degree in music education in his native Kansas. He picked up the fiddle from his grandfather, and he made it his life’s work to instill his love of music in others, teaching area students and his own children to play while they were still young.
Susan Burch also taught music in Chugiak-Eagle River schools, so with two music teachers as parents, “I didn’t have much choice in the matter,” joked Riordan -- who has since taught his two teenage daughters, Ainsley and Hazel, and young son, Zelin, to play music.
Shortly after Burch arrived at Chugiak, he began to build up the school’s orchestra program. What started out as “a very small orchestra” turned into a focal point of the community under Burch’s leadership.
“He built it up so it was really the powerhouse for the town,” said former band teacher Mike Martinson.
Burch had a unique ability to connect with students, said his old teaching partner.
“Just a warm, funny guy,” remembered Martinson, a longtime area music teacher who used to barnstorm from school to school with Burch, spreading the sound of music to aspiring performers from Peters Creek to the Eagle River Valley.
Like Martinson, Jean Lenoir would also travel to other district schools teaching music with Burch. Often they’d find themselves getting coffee in the mornings at the same Eagle River locations. After a while, they started to make a game of it.
“A lot of times we had a chance to go grab a cup of coffee at Sleepy Dog or Jitters, and if he pulled up in front of me he would pay for my cup of coffee, so I started doing that too,” said Lenoir, who retired last year.
Although he was known for his sense of humor, Lenoir said Burch was a gifted educator whose legacy lives to this day in the music programs at Chugiak-Eagle River schools.
“One of the things I learned from Philip was how to program the correct level of music for a group,” she said. “He could do that better than anybody.”
That’s important because it keeps students engaged and allows them to reach their full potential, she said.
“At the beginning groups you’re basically trying to just get them through with the notes and rhythms and hopefully nothing falls apart. But when you get into the upper groups — middle through high school — you want to start teaching beyond the notes and rhythms, you want to teach the expression — because that’s what makes it fun,” she said.
Burch made it fun.
“He could always get the kids past that point,” she said.
Burch’s legacy lives on in countless ways large and small at Chugiak, from the school’s perennially powerful music program down to the equipment — including a music stand that still reads “P. BURCH” in permanent marker.
In the early 2000s, the beloved CHS mentor developed a rare form of cancer and wasn’t given much of a chance to live. The cancer was incurable, and he needed special — and expensive — treatment in Washington, D.C., to help prolong his life.
That’s when the people of Chugiak-Eagle River decided it was time to give back to the man who had given so much to them. So in the fall of 2003, a fundraiser was hastily planned in the CHS cafeteria. Student musicians were lined up for entertainment and enough spaghetti was cooked up to feed half of Italy.
It wasn’t enough.
“They ran out of food,” Susan Burch said. “There were so many people, they were lined up in the parking lot.”
The event raised more than $20,000 for Burch’s care.
“This community has just given and given and given,” she said.
Longtime area music teacher Emily Blahous said that’s just how folks are in Chugiak-Eagle River.
“We’re our own entity out here,” she said.
Susan Burch said the outpouring of support was overwhelming, but not out of line with what she had come to expect from her neighbors.
“I think it’s that whole idea of community and camaraderie, that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
The giving didn’t end with plates of pasta. While the couple was in D.C. for treatment, the people of Chugiak-Eagle River didn’t forget them; day after day, cards poured in.
“Every time he got a card I would put it on the wall,” she said. “Well I will tell you, after six weeks the entire place was covered with cards.”
At some point, Susan Burch said the man delivering the mail had had enough.
“One day the mailman came in and he didn’t say, ‘I have a card for you.’ He said, ‘Who the heck are you???’”
In his typically unassuming manner, Burch replied.
“I’m nobody, I’m just a teacher from Chugiak,” he said.
But that wasn’t the truth.
“He was somebody,” Blahous said as she listened to her friend tell the story.
“He was somebody,” Burch agreed.
That’s why to this day, teachers at Chugiak gather in the Philip Burch Fiddle Friday Faculty Room to talk and share a moment before the day begins. It’s the school’s way of honoring the legacy of a man who brought so much joy to the community.
“He loved donuts and he loved gathering with people,” Susan Burch said.
Philip retired from teaching in 2004 and lost his battle with cancer in 2009 at the age of 65. Today, a plaque outside the faculty room now bears his photo and a brief summary of a legacy that lives in the music of generations of musicians.
“Philip Burch inspired thousands of music students over the course of his career,” it reads. “He was an amazing encourager, always with a sense of humor, and a kind human being.”
Philip was far more than a fiddler.
He was somebody.
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected].com or call (907) 257-4274.