A lasting legacy for Phil Robb

Gilroy High School Choir Director Phil Robb conducts the Chamber

The Garlic Capital’s famed choral director is shelving his baton for good when he retires this year after more than three decades of enriching Gilroy with the sound of music, but homage to his harmonious legacy will remain on campus long after Phil Robb, 61, takes his final curtain call.

Generations of choir students will continue to sing under Robb in the symbolic sense, as the Board of Education unanimously voted Thursday to name the Gilroy High School music building in honor of the reputable director. He’ll soon join the elite ranks of late GHS basketball coach Bob Hagen; former NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia and late GHS football coach of 22 years Maurice Elder, the only others for whom GHS facilities are named.

In true Phil-ish form, the director – as he often has in the past when being recognized or awarded – is quick to underscore a sense of humility and self consciousness.

“I’m very humbled by it. I thought at least if anything, they would put maybe a bathroom stall toilet paper dispenser with my name on it or something,” he joked. “But this is a little overwhelming. It is pretty cool. A lot of friends of mine have worked like I have, done what I’ve done, probably accomplished much more than I have accomplished in their communities also, and they’ve retired and I’ve got one up on them.”

It’s well deserved according to GUSD Board of Ed. Trustee Mark Good, whose three out of five children had a “fantastic experience” singing in Robb’s Chamber Choir. One of Good’s children – who went on to become a professional musician and actor – attributes “a lot of the inspiration and training required for what he’s doing now in his life” to the stellar GHS program Robb “built from scratch” in the early 80s, as Superintendent Debbie Flores puts it.

And whereas buildings or facilities are frequently dedicated posthumously, Good lightheartedly points out that naming the music building sooner than later is “pretty awesome.”

“I’m glad this is something we can do when Phil is alive and well and thriving so that he can be aware of the honor now that he’s receiving it – and he’s really earned it,” Good praised. “There aren’t too many people who consistently over periods of decades have been 150 percent (at their job) and inspired so many children.”

Good isn’t exaggerating when he equates the busy music teacher’s assiduousness to “150 percent.” Robb has been zipping back and forth between two campuses since Christopher High opened in 2008 on the opposite end of town, spreading himself between several choral groups that perform concerts for the community throughout the year and also compete in other cities.

When he leaves, the workload will be spliced into two positions. Flores says the district already conducted the recruitment/interview process and is poised to recommend its picks to the School Board. Robb’s replacements will be announced mid-May or early June.

“Even with two, they have some tall boots to fill,” Good noted. “(Robb) is a legend.”

The new directors will get some guidance from the best, thanks to a generous $30,000 donation from the Connell family – Gilroy’s longtime choral music benefactors – that will supplement a stipend for Robb to spend one day a week at each high school mentoring the new staffers in an effort to “continue the same quality of program that’s he’s worked so hard to establish,” said Flores.

That means Robb will get a chance, after all, to enjoy working inside the building that will soon bear his name – the idea for which was sparked in March by Tim Day, a former planning commissioner, previous City Council candidate and former GUSD parent.

The district encouraged community participation in the process by appointing a citizen advisory committee. Members were picked by Flores and included Day; former GUSD teacher Brian Kjellesvig; City Councilman Perry Woodward; President Susan Valenta of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce; retired GUSD administrator Sal Tomasello; Gilroy Dispatch Executive Editor Mark Derry; parent Tina Bundros of a former GUSD student, GHS alumna Amy Oelrich, GHS Principal Marco Sanchez; and President Arcelia O’Connor of the Gilroy Teacher’s Federation.

The group voted unanimously to support the idea, which was approved by the GUSD School Board during their regular meeting Thursday night. 

The committee has already raised $1,300 that will cover the costs of painting Robb’s name on the music building and the creation of a “really nice” plaque to be fixed on a prominent part of the edifice. 

Robb jokingly hemmed and hawed over whether the engraving should read “Phil” or “Phillip.” He responds to both, depending on who’s addressing him.

“My mom called me (Philip) when she was very angry with me,” he said.

Witnessing a school building or facility being named in honor of someone is a “rare experience” added Flores, who in her 38-year education career “can only think of one or two other times when a building was named after a longtime employee like Phil…he’s in a class of his own.”

It’s kind of a big deal, as spelled out in GUSD’s School Board policy 7310 that reserves the naming of a facility for individuals “only under extraordinary circumstances and after thorough study.”

With retirement just around the corner, it’s a nice note for Robb to sail out on.

Wait, retirement?

“I haven’t really had time to think about that. My nose is to the grindstone,” said Robb, giving the exact same response when queried about retirement in November 2012, when he was nominated for “Educator of the Year” by the California League of High Schools.

“I even refrain from looking at a calendar,” he said. “I don’t want to get into that mindset.”

Phil Robb’s legacy

Under Robb’s direction since 1984, the GHS choir program took on a life of its own and has since established a widely-revered reputation among academic and musical communities throughout California and beyond. The GHS choir room – emblazoned with ribbons, plaques, awards, pictures, banners and various memorabilia – speaks to a cherished singing tradition that has become a source of community pride under Robb’s lengthy and dedicated tenure.

Between Gilroy and Christopher High, Robb leads various choral groups including a concert, chamber, men’s and women’s groups.

A popular tradition of sending students on epic trips to visit Gilroy’s sister city in Takko-Machi, Japan, is also equipped to thrive long after Robb’s career with GUSD sunsets. After seven years of arranging excursions for Gilroy choir students to stay with host families who live 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, Robb and his wife helped establish the Gilroy-Takko Student Exchange Program. Known as GTSEP, the program allows GUSD students to become enmeshed in Japanese culture, traditions and lifestyles, while strengthening a transcontinental relationship and forming new friendships with Gilroy’s sister city. This is the fourth year GTSEP has been in existence, as exchanges made prior to this took place solely with the Gilroy High School Chamber Choir beginning in 1989.

“It was an effort to continue the opportunity for kids to go to Japan,” Rob said previously. “We hope that we can step away, and another group of younger teachers are gonna pick up the ball and run.”