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Bryan Mills Looks Toward Retirement
His Final Bow
b mills
After 28 years of teaching, 11 in Michigan and 17 with Oakdale Joint Unified School District, performing arts instructor Bryan Mills will take his final bow, May 26 and retire from teaching. Teresa Hammond/The Leader

The curtain will fall for a final time as Oakdale High School’s Performing Arts Instructor, Bryan Mills has decided to officially retire. Known by his students as a long time running joke, the “myth” of the well-loved teacher retiring, is indeed fact.

“Simoncini and I got voted three years ago, Most Likely Not to Retire,” Mills said, chuckling at the long time delay.

“There’s pictures of us in the yearbook, so he’s going at the same time,” he noted of colleague Pete Simoncini. “Nope. It’s real, May 26.”

Indicating a true struggle with making the decision final, the longtime drama and choir teacher shared he initially considered one more year, possibly retiring when his youngest son graduates from Beyer High in 2023. However, this year just seemed to feel like the right time.

“Once I made the decision in December, I never turned back,” he said.

And once that happened, Mills added all the future dreams and plans he had once considered in the far off distance quickly began to fall into place. The performing arts enthusiast shared he had always dreamed of living on a sailboat once he retired. With no practical sailing experience, he began with making plans for this summer to learn more about sailing.

His immediate post-retirement plans include spending some time in Seattle in July taking some nautical classes and then traveling to Tahiti where he will spend a month on a sailboat with a couple learning the practical skills.

But first, Mills plans to travel to Hawaii in June to meet the owner of the sailboat he intends to buy.

While the pie in the sky dream has been fun to think about over the past 28 years (11 teaching in Michigan and the last 17 at OJUSD), the retiree admitted he never actually thought it would happen.

“You think it isn’t going to happen and then you think, man my whole life’s changed. And you know, I love this life. I love this life I have for the past 28 years,” he said of his teaching career.

Initially hired on by OJUSD to teach English, Choir and Band, Mills shared his job morphed a bit in his second year and he hasn’t looked back since. Trading out band with former band teacher Ron Quintanal and taking on the Drama program following the retirement of former teacher Alan Oksen.

“I sort of made my own job. It was good. Then I just did Choir and Drama,” he said.

During that time he has led a minimum of three major productions each school year, as well as One Acts by the drama classes and dozens of Choir Concerts.

As a Liberal Studies major initially, he ended his college career with a Music Degree. He did not major in theater, yet shared he learned from other theater companies. Following the footsteps of his older brother, Mills shared he was first drawn to theater his freshman year of high school.

“It was like family and that’s how I wanted to make this program; like family,” he said. “It’s just where I hung out. Families have their squabbles. I’ve had squabbles, I’ve had non-squabbles, but when you’re family you work it out.”

Now as he looks to his final days with this “family,” there are many big things ahead in the final days remaining of the school year. One most notable is the current production of “Grease, the Musical.”

As chance or perhaps a bit of fate would have it, it is the first production Mills led in Michigan and will be his last at Oakdale High.

“Really it wasn’t intentional,” he said of the serendipitous coincidence, noting the decision was made last year, prior to deciding to retire, “but then here it is. First and last. It makes me cry, the last production. It’s like a beginning and an ending, all of this.”

With that being said, the teacher shared he has no regrets or second thoughts surrounding his decision, even if the emotion is high at times.

“This group is amazing,” he said of his cast and current students.

The cast of Grease is comprised of 60 students in total, 20 more than initially planned. Mills shared he cast 50 and then recruited 10 more from initial auditions.

The final production will be hosted outdoors May 12 through May 15, with three 7 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and two matinees, hosted Saturday, May 14 and Sunday, May 15 at 2 p.m. each day. Tickets are $10 per person and may be purchased at the OHS Business office.

“It wasn’t about COVID and masks,” he said of the choice to be outside. “It was about trying it outside.”

Mills intends to sell 300 tickets per show and hopes to sell out each performance.

“We’re taking a chance,” he said of hosting the production under the stars with no tent. “If it rains one night they can come back the next night.”

As his final student production, the teacher shared he could not be more pleased with the cast and the energy which is surrounding the stage.

“It’s really student led,” he said of the production and all aspects of what it takes to put on. “I love them. They’re funny. It is a really, really good cast. This is the only show I’ve ever thought about double casting, making two of those, two of those, two of those. There’s so much talent; that could have been done easy.”

As credit to that, the director has decided to host an “Understudy Show” for the Saturday matinee performance.

Reflecting back on his 17 years with the district, the teacher shares his love for all the students who have come through his program, as well as his gratitude for the district for its ongoing support.

“This district was hand given to me,” he said. “I came and they gave me a job when I was in shorts and a T-shirt and I just can’t ask for anything better than this school district to pursue my dreams and do anything I wanted to do in the arts.”

In his youth and as an adult, performing arts were the perfect fit.

“I smile more every day,” he said. “In high school choir and drama was my savior. That’s what saved me and that’s what I wanted for them (students). A place to go. A place to hang out. A place to eat lunch.”

In speaking with his students, it becomes apparent that the teacher has created that for them as well. Noted as caring, a father figure, a bit kooky and loving, it becomes clear why the teacher is so passionate about what he’s done for 28 years.

“I can thoroughly say this man will be with me for the rest of my life,” Assistant Director and OHS alum, Emily Thomas said. “The opportunities he’s given me both in and out of high school, I can never repay him. He’s truly amazing and he makes my life so much better. He may be leaving this theater, but he’s not going to be leaving any of our hearts or minds.”

For Mills, it hasn’t seemed like three decades of work.

“The highlight of my career is coming in and loving what you do,” Mills said. “What I love the most, is seeing kids grow as people. I always tell them, you’re gonna be a stronger person. You’re going to be able to stand in front of people and know who you are in life and that’s that I want out of you. Know who you are and become a stronger person.”

Turning their attention to center stage of the outside performing area, this cast of T-Birds is all in for their performance in Grease the Musical opening Thursday, May 12 at Oakdale High. Teresa Hammond/The Leader