Retiring music educators Kevin and Pam Rhein, left, react as former student Amanda Clifford presents them with a memory book during a surprise retirement party for the Rheins in Belgrade, Maine Sunday, June 6, 2021. The pair taught for 42 years serving students in RSU 18. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Shea Ellis remembers playing the keyboard in fourth-grade music class, his first experience with Kevin Rhein. Years later, after singing an extra line as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Rhein pivoted the band to save the day. Pam Rhein provided accompaniment. Time and time again, the Rheins provided opportunities for Ellis and his classmates both in and outside of the classroom.

“I sang at Carnegie Hall because of all the work [Kevin] and Pam did,” said Ellis, a 2004 Messalonskee graduate who is still in music, directing and instructing private music lessons at Mountain Road Music in Cape Neddick, “and that was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

After leading Regional School Unit 18’s music department for four decades, Pam and Kevin Rhein are moving on to the next steps. While their music careers are not done, with a music ministry, private lessons and other opportunities available. The Rheins leave a lasting legacy, touching the lives of countless students.

“It was like having two extra parents in school,” said Patrick Ferriter, a 2004 Messalonskee graduate and sergeant at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. “Whether you had a good day in school or a bad day in school, either Mr. or Mrs. Rhein was there for you.”

Based in Oakland, RSU 18 serves approximately 2,500 students from the towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney across its eight schools. The Rheins brought choir students to the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City several times and Disney World, building the district’s program into one of the region’s, if not the nation’s best.

“One of my greatest thrills over the years is watching students discover how far they can go with music beyond borders,” Kevin Rhein said. “With some encouragement with working on their skills, they make strides. Being able to travel with them and have these experiences with them has been a great thrill for me.”

While not every student sticks with music, the Rheins loved watching them grow. Students started to have them in fifth grade and go through high school.

“It’s been an honor to watch so many students begin with us,” Pam Rhein added. “We have a unique privilege… We watch them grow into wonderful human beings.”

The Rheins, Kevin, of New York, and Pam, of New Jersey, met and graduated from Westminster Choir College and got married at the college’s chapel. After two years in Reno, Nevada, the Rheins started their four-decade career in RSU 18.

“We were both hired on one-year contracts,” Kevin Rhein said, “and I guess it worked out.”

Earlier this year, they organized an international collaboration between their students and students taught by their daughter and son-in-law in Italy. Nia Passmore, the Rhein’s daughter, graduated from Messalonskee in 2006. Passmore also graduated from Westminster.

Thinking back on her time in her parents’ class 15 years ago, Passmore said she was “lucky.”

“The music room, the Performing Arts Center, it was all a haven for us,” Passmore said. “I was just happy to be there and be a part of something that was awesome.”

Passmore watched her parents put together a successful year despite the pandemic.

Retiring music educators Kevin and Pam Rhein, right, react during an audiovisual program honoring them at a surprise retirement party in Belgrade, Maine Sunday, June 6, 2021. The pair taught for 42 years serving students in RSU 18. Former students sang to the Rheins during the program. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“It was unreal watching what they were doing,” Passmore said. “Through snowstorms and rainstorms, they were out singing, singing through the rain.”

Amanda Clifford is a former student of the Rheins who became a family friend. The 2011 Messalonskee graduate went to Disney World with Messalonskee’s select chorus and continued on to apply to Disney’s scholarship program, became a cast member and eventually returned to Maine and is an educator at Chelsea Elementary School.

“How can I possibly describe 40 years of dedication to the community and the arts?” Clifford said. “It feels like an impossible task. They have this mindset of inclusion and graciousness, truly nothing but kindness and generosity in their hearts.”

The Rheins impacted more than just those at RSU 18. Passmore met John Baker while she was in college at Westminster Choir College when he worked there as a recording engineer, but he quickly became fast friends with the Rheins. A noted recording engineer, Baker worked with the Rheins and Messlonskee choirs on a Grammy-submitted album. Baker described them as “truly remarkable” people who built one of the best high school programs he’s ever worked with.

“They’re two people who happen to be choral teachers, happen to be musicians, but also happen to be humans of the highest order,” Baker said.

Baker, a Princeton, N.J. resident who summers in Rockland, has also done workshops and recording sessions with Messalonskee students. One of their most important collaborations was when Pam Rhein had a district-wide choir record songs for a Maine Holocaust Museum album called Songs of Darkness and Hope. Over 400 students sang the songs composed from poems written by interred children found in the walls of the concentration camps after World War II.

“It was such a national, international project that I decided to release it as a national release under my label, Afetto Records,” Baker said. “To say it is unusual for a rural Maine high school choir to have a project submitted for a Grammy is an understatement.”

As part of a surprise party of sorts Sunday at Belgrade’s Community Center for All Seasons, the Rheins received two gifts. Pam Rhein organized the party as a surprise birthday party but didn’t know her daughter would be putting together tokens in recognition of their dedication to RSU 18. Clifford helped Passmore out by putting together a nearly 150-page scrapbook with hundreds of letters and messages from nearly 350 former students and peers all over the country compiled through a secret Facebook group.

More than 10% of the group also recorded, virtually, a rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with permission from the composer who even wrote his own tribute to the Rheins.

Pam and Kevin Rhein look forward to continuing their involvement in community music but also spending time with their two young grandchildren.

“We want to give ourselves a little time to settle into not working,” Pam Rhein said.

“It’s pretty much a non-retirement,” Kevin Rhein said. “We’re moving on to exciting things.”

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