Award-winning CHS orchestra director retires after 40 years

Published: May. 18, 2022 at 9:46 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - At 22, Laura Thomas walked through Charlottesville High School’s doors for her first day as an orchestra director. She grew the department from eight members, to an award-winning group of a hundred. Forty years later, she’s preparing for her last concert in the same school she started.

“I never set out to win trophies. I just love what I do,” Thomas said.

She started this job at CHS right out of college. Thomas says it’s the support that has kept her there all these decades.

“All those folks really kind of stuck their neck out to hire a 22 year old, well, because they saw potential in me,” Thomas said.

Since then, she earned national awards, honors, and more. Early in her career, Thomas brought her students to a competition in New York.

“I took my 40 member orchestra in 1989, I thought that was huge at the time, and when they called out, ‘Charlottesville, High School, gold!’ I will never forget that moment,” Thomas said. The kids just went nuts.”

Now, she has traveled across the U.S. with her team, and even to five different countries.

“We got an enormous amount of support from the community. We’ve raised more than a million dollars in Charlottesville to take this show on the road, because people believe in the CHS O,” Thomas said.

She says those donations come from groups all over, including the Dave Matthews Band. She’ll take her current group to California in June for one last trip.

“I don’t think it’s going to really hit me until maybe when August rolls around and I’m not coming back into the building,” Thomas said.

She’s retiring to spend more time with her parents and new grandson, though she won’t be too far. Her daughter, Emily Waters, will take over her role after the concert Wednesday night. Waters has grown her own reputation in the Charlottesville community as the orchestra instructor at Walker Upper Elementary School.

“I’m handing the baton to her and we’re playing her piece and that’s going to be the one that will get me very emotional,” Thomas said.

Students say her legacy will last. Junior Dylan Stukenberg dreamed of being in this orchestra since the first grade.

“It comes hand-in-hand with Ms. Thomas. I think without her building the program and molding it throughout these last 40 years, it wouldn’t be what it is today without her,” Stukenberg said.

He says Thomas’s dedication sets her apart.

“She does the things that are above and beyond what is required of her in her job and I could not be more grateful,” Stukenberg said.

Thomas says it’s hard to retire because she loves her job so much. Her last show is Wednesday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. It’s free and at the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center.

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