Shortly after receiving a call from transportation supervisor Jesse Miller at 3:45 a.m. on Jan. 16, Washougal School District (WSD) superintendent Mary Templeton decided to cancel classes for the day, citing unsafe road conditions.
For the next few hours, Templeton worked with the WSD’s communications team, which provided parents with several rounds of updates via social media, emails and text messages. After all of that was done, however, Templeton knew that there was one more important task to complete – a task that she had been anticipating for months.
The “Singing Superintendent” was set for her second act.
In the later morning hours, the district posted a video of Templeton singing a song to announce the schools’ closure to its Facebook page.
“Sometimes we’re so serious about things that we forget that education is supposed to be fun. I wanted to highlight that fact,” she said. “The other part of it is the opportunity to ask students and staff to share whatever talents they have. We are an arts district. What better way to highlight that than a singing superintendent?”
Templeton recorded the video in November when she was with her family during the Thanksgiving break. She enlisted the assistance of her sister, Patti Mortier, a professional opera singer and voice teacher.
“I needed some help,” Templeton said. “(Patti) did the accompaniment and I wrote the lyrics. It was a family affair. Our other sister (Dorothy Baldwin) is a professional violinist and orchestra teacher in the Mead (Spokane) School District, so wouldn’t it be fun if we could work on a snow-day song as a trio? We’re all educators and we’re all creatives.”
Templeton picked one of her favorite show tunes —“Matchmaker” from the famed musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – and wrote original lyrics to accompany the arrangement.
“In my world, that’s a cute, catchy song,” she said. “Instead of ‘Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match,’ I came up with, ‘Bus driver, bus driver, give me the news.’ That’s how it started, and it took off from there.
“I was singing it in my car (to prepare) when I was driving to events. I did it in on four takes. Maybe there’s a blooper reel around somewhere.”
The “Singing Superintendent” phenomenon started last February, when Templeton posted a similar “snow day” video to announce school closures.
Since then she’s had several other chances to display her skills in public settings. As part of her keynote speaker duties for the Enspire Arts Celebration Gala in Vancouver on Oct. 5, she sang “Summertime” from the 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess;” and she performed a piano duet with Portland artist Michael Allen Harrison during a concert with the Jemtegaard Middle School (JMS) Club 8 Soundstage group in November. And she’s scheduled to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Washougal School Foundation’s Stride for Education run, to be held this spring.
“(Mary) was a great addition to the show, and she is a very accomplished piano player,” said JMS teacher and Soundstage advisor Diana Larson, who has professional performing arts experience. “I am impressed with her snow announcements. What can’t she do? I think this song helps kids in our district see their superintendent in a more relatable way. When I met Mary, she expressed her support for Soundstage and told me how important she felt the arts were in education. It is encouraging to me as a performing arts person to have an administrator who has the same passion.”
Templeton comes from a family of musical performers. She and her sisters “grew up singing together, (starting when we were in) early grade school,” Mortier said. “Our mom is a violinist and educator, and taught privately for years. She used to play the guitar and we would all sing together. We were a quite good three-part harmony.”
Templeton took piano lessons for eight years and performed in musicals as a high-schooler. At the University of Oregon, she studied performance arts and sang in jazz choirs. While living in Germany, she performed in a blues band and vocal jazz group.
“My favorite (instance) of Mary singing is when she was in the German rock band,” Mortier said. “She was pretty amazing. In fact, we just listened to the old cassette tape over Christmas. It had been found after being lost for many years. We sing at every family wedding and funeral together as well, or (play) some variation of instruments — Dorothy on violin, Mary singing, me singing and playing piano, etc. We’ve always talked about doing it more seriously, but we each have three children, and jobs and life keeps us moving.
“All of our children have been trained on various instruments, from piano, violin, saxophone to clarinet and trumpet. All nine of our mom’s grandchildren studied violin with her from the time they were little tiny preschoolers, so the tradition continues. And Mary’s youngest, Brenna, has a beautiful voice and studied voice with me for years. We are a family of educators/musicians, and we sure enjoy all getting together to do music when we can.”
Today, Templeton dabbles in piano and guitar and performs in church groups.
“I love that (music) allows you to put yourself into a position of being stretched, which is good for all of us, especially when performing,” she said. “As a superintendent, you’re in front of people all the time, you’re communicating messages all the time. Performing, articulating, clearly communicating — those are things that you learn when you do solo (performances), and they’re nice crossover skills to have. I just love music. It’s fun. Why not sing if you can sing?”
Baldwin described Templeton as a “unique gem.”
“In Mary’s senior year (of high school), she was the lead Mabel in ‘The Pirates of Penzance,’” Baldwin said. “It was stunning. She captivated the audience with her high soprano lyrical voice and gift for the stage. Even though she did not go into music or theater as a career — she could have — she believes in the journey, joy and a life educated in the arts.
“I believe the development of her artistic spirit, coupled with a very bright quick mind, has allowed her exorbitant amounts of creativity in her work. I think that’s why she loves work — she’s been doing it all her life. She alternates different hats appropriately — she’s a cheerleader for people and she is an actor on the stage of life, creatively orchestrating the layers of complexity, working towards a unified masterpiece.”
The “snow day” video has received rave reviews from the online community. In the first 10 hours after its posting, the video had drawn more than 3,300 views on YouTube and 138 “likes” on Facebook.
“People are appreciative of the fact that I’m investing something of my personality into the leadership role,” Templeton said. “We are an arts district, we are always invested in art, and I think people like their leaders demonstrating that. People like the sense of humor; the song is funny. It’s different, novel, fun, and highlights the fact that we’re rising to the top. How can you not make it to the top when you have a singing superintendent?”
Templeton gave herself top marks for her performance and is already starting to think ahead to next year’s third act.
“I believe I’d give myself a A-plus,” she said. “I’m so tickled that ‘Matchmaker’ worked so well as a ‘show tune snow tune.’ I think I rocked it. It leaves you wanting more. I’ve had people ask me, ‘When is the next one coming out?’ I tell them, ‘Next year when it snows. I’ll only do one per year.’ I’m thinking about next year’s (song) right now. I’m not sure what it will be, but it will be good, I guarantee you that.”