Chorus director’s former students surround him in song on death bed

Wes Rainer loved Christmas and song and his students, so much so that few were surprised when they discovered the 63-year-old had checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s advice to take some of his Seminole Ridge High chorus to perform at Epcot’s Candlelight Processional over the holidays.

Weeks later, it brought his hospice nurses to tears — and again surprised no one who knew Mr. Rainer — when about 20 of his former students filled his room at Good Samaritan Hospital to serenade the man with those holiday tunes for hours as he lay unconscious and not far from death.

“We sang for a little bit and took turns staying and talking to him and just being present,” said Karista MacRostie, now a chorus teacher herself. “I think he really felt our presence.”

Rainer died during the weekend after a months-long battle with an unspecified illness, his best friend and fellow choral director Scott Houchins confirmed.

Rainer, an intensely private man who stood well above six feet tall and wielded a clipboard like no other, was not married and had no children, but he had built a family none the less among students and staff.

“He’s the only chorus teacher we’ve had in the history of this school. He’s such a major part of the culture and tradition here,” said Seminole Ridge Principal James Campbell. “He wrote the music and lyrics for the alma mater.”

Rainer came to the Palm Beach County School District in 2001 and worked at Lake Worth High and Glades Central High before he was tapped to open a chorus program near his home in Loxahatchee at the new Seminole Ridge High.

“He would come early and stay well into the evening hours. He’d come to school during the weekends for his students. He absolutely loved them. He attended every fund raiser, every concert, every trip. He created such respect and discipline within the chorus department even the substitutes said, ‘Your students are amazing,” recalled Ryan Lee, head of the school’s drama department. (Principal Campbell estimates that no one clocked as many hours on the campus as Rainer did.)

On Monday, the school had counselors on hand to help comfort Rainer’s students. And yet they brokered their own comfort, showing up to an after-school faculty meeting to pay the man tribute by singing for his colleagues, said Lee, who often collaborated with Rainer when drama and music intersected.

Rainer was a task master — a perfectionist on everything but the piano, said MacRostie. (Rainer’s instrument was the clarinet. He played in the band at the University of Wisconsin, according to Houchins.)

“We had long rehearsals, but you never felt overworked. He’d bring in pizza, and he’d bring in different types of people so we could see different techniques,” MacRostie said.

He taught music, but he built character.

“He taught us 10 minutes early is on-time and if you’re not going to give it everything, why are you even bothering?” MacRostie said.

When MacRostie decided to become a teacher, she credited Rainer. He, on the other hand, joked that he should not be blamed. “Don’t put that on me,” said MacRostie, now 26 and director of chorus at Jeaga Middle School.

By the very nature of the job, high school chorus directors get to know their students well, over the course of four years of class and rehearsals.

But Rainer cast an even wider circle of influence.

His students consistently performed at the top levels in regional and state competitions. He organized events for the Florida Vocal Association and the Florida Music Education Association.

“I’ve had people from all over – band directors, chorus directors – not only here in the state but across the country contact me about him. I’ve never heard an unkind word said about him,” Houchins said.

At least one valedictorian has given him a shout-out from the graduation podium. And many parents have espoused his efforts to see their children successfully land in college. If they ever chaperoned for him, they got of taste of his organizational skills when he handed them a printed and bound set of guidelines and itineraries right down to room assignments, Houchins said.

Rainer loved a good barbershop quartet and was a Michael Jackson fan as well, said Houchins, choral director at Palm Beach Central High. He appreciated jazz and classical. But his iPod was filled with choral and band music, Houchins said.

It was Houchins who first took him to the hospital. Houchins who after taking his own chorus to Epcot to perform for the month-long Christmas concert returned to make the trip with a weakened Rainer and 25 of his students.

The performance went off smashingly and Rainer returned and checked back into the hospital.

When MacRostie first got the call that Mr. Rainer – he told her to call him Wes, but for so long that felt wrong – she went armed with a recording of her own students singing. “We were laughing and joking.” The next time she visited, the nurses said he had been unresponsive, but he could see and hear. “When I played for him, tears ran down his face.”

So when the end was near, it was natural to sing. “We sang some of the Candlelight songs because he always brought us to the Candlelight concert at Disney. We also sang You Raise Me Up and the Alma Mater,” she said.

Surely, he felt their love of him and music.

Said MacRostie: “He gave us that love.”

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