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Casa Grande High School band director Arlene Burney retires after 22 years

More than 100 alumni came from all across North America on Friday to Casa Grande High School, in town for a surprise party to honor beloved band director Arlene Burney, who is set to retire at the end of the school year after 22 years on the Petaluma campus.

Burney, 63, who came to Casa Grande in 1995, had no clue, which took some doing.

The night was planned by her successor, Sean Millard, who started planning in January, when he opened up a secret Facebook group, and broached the idea with former Casa band members. The group grew to about 300 members, and soon he had a concert to plan.

During her career of more than two decades, Burney shuttled countless students through Casa’s renowned music program.

In December 2015, she was the recipient of the John Philip Sousa Legion of Honor Award — an honor bestowed annually on only eight band directors from the United States and Canada.

She began her career teaching music to elementary school students in Santa Cruz in 1976. In 1980, she moved to Israel where she taught music for five years, before returning to the United States.

“I have always loved music,” she said. “I started playing the French horn in sixth grade.”

Keeping the mass gathering a surprise was no easy feat.

“She seems to be the all-seeing eye,” Millard said of Burney, laughing.

To stay off Burney’s radar, Millard reserved a school building months in advance with a made-up event name.

“Arlene looks at the calendar,” he said.

He also had the concert players — including 85 band alumni — practice at Kenilworth Junior High School the day before the party.

And, he stealthily procured a half-dozen instruments for students who no longer have their tubas and trumpets lying around, plus made 85 copies of the night’s music.

The work paid off.

“It really was a surprise,” Burney said. “Sean was so good at concealing this; it was so amazing. I was so shocked, and it takes a lot to make me cry.”

Also retiring this year from Casa are art instructor Harry Frank; calculus and physics teacher Rick Pillsbury, who coaches the academic decathlon team; chemistry teacher Grace Cottle; and special education teacher Darrell Ortman.

Though the concert was originally meant to honor just Burney, when Millard heard about the other retirees, he expanded it to involve them as well.

“You add up all their years together, and that’s over 100 years of service to the school,” Millard said.

“I just thought, that cannot go by the wayside.”

Petaluma sisters and Casa Grande alumni Rachel Lowe (’06), Erin Schwabe-Fry (’05) and Kristen Schwabe-Fry (’10) were among the more than 100 alumni who flew in for the occasion to honor the woman Lowe described as “like a quirky aunt to all of us.”

Lowe flew in from Honolulu, and Erin and Kristen from Montreal and Seattle, respectively.

“Ms. Burney believed in my sisters and I as musicians and as people,” Lowe said. “It sounds cliché, but having a teacher who believes in you and cares so much makes all the difference in the world.”

The other big surprise of the evening? The band of alumni played pretty well.

It was a pleasant surprise to Lowe, who joked with her sisters beforehand that they would likely sound less like a group of adults than an elementary school band.

“I was not expecting it to sound decent at all,” she said.

Burney voiced her approval, as well.

“I’m looking at all these former students going, ‘Wow, they still can play well,’” she said. “And some of them hadn’t touched their instruments in 15 years.”

Burney plans to stay involved in the Sonoma County music scene, through the Petaluma Community Band and teaching a class at Sonoma State University, among other things.

She also hopes to see Casa get a performing arts center one day, and would be interested in getting that process started.

“I’d like to get back to playing my own French horn, and I’d like to garden, and I’d like to travel.” And “I’d like to not get up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Burney said, laughing.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.