After 57 years of teaching, Ileane Gonzales still had a fire and an enthusiasm and a drive that inspired her students to love music the way she did. And if it weren't for the cancer that drained her energy and ultimately took her life Thursday, she'd be teaching still.
Friends said Gonzales died at her home the way she had lived with guts, determination, humor and a sense of dignity.
"Music was a part of her heart," Frontier Elementary School Principal Sue Myers said. "She was a fighter an ornery, tough old gal, and I say that out of respect. I had quite an admiration for her.
She worked right up to when she couldn't work any longer, and she thought about the kids all the time."
For Gonzales, who began working for the Payson School District in 1988 as a "part-time" music teacher, it was all about the children and the music.
Before her illness forced her from the classroom, the feisty 79-year-old was teaching beginning and intermediate third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in three elementary school bands, 140 students in the Payson High School and Rim Country Middle School string ensemble and 66 beginning strings students in three kindergarten classes.
Carma Locke, a music teacher at Frontier Elementary School, said Gonzales started the string program in 1989 with six private students. "It moved to after school and became part of the curriculum about three years ago," Lock said. Sixty-six kindergarten students were added to the strings program in January and are learning to play the violin. Students in fourth grade play violas, cellos and stringed bass, in addition to the violin.
"Our kids have really been touched by her," Myers said. "Today (Friday) we had a flag ceremony and a moment of silence in memory of Mrs. Gonzales. Two students, Sara DeWitt and Whitney Hlavacek, played "Ode to Joy" on their flutes for her. It was their idea -- they came to me yesterday and asked if they could do it."
Outside the school system, Gonzales served as the director for the Rim Civic Orchestra and she developed Payson's popular summer music camps to help music students nurture and develop their talents all year long.
She was a past president and charter member of Women Band Directors International, a charter member of National Band Masters, a guest conductor for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force bands, and a member of a number of state and national committees. She was recognized nationally and had been honored with the John Philip Sousa Band Director Award.
Before coming to Payson after her retirement in 1988, Gonzales worked with Phoenix Indian School and the Washington School District in the Valley for 28 years.
Born in East Liberty, Ohio, Oct. 19, 1920, Gonzales graduated from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She went on to do her post-graduate work at Arizona State University and worked at Indian Lake High School in Ohio and Zuni Reservation Schools in New Mexico.
In an article she was preparing for a national publication, Gonzales reflected on an experience that she had last December during the Mid-West Band Clinic that brought her tireless devotion into strong relief. She wrote:
"Two very new teachers... came over to me and asked if I had time to talk with them. Of course I did. The first thing they asked me was, 'How do you keep from burning out after all those years?'
"It really caught me by surprise because, honestly, I had never had that feeling."
Mrs. Gonzales had developed a buoyant approach to teaching that never let her down. She said she thoroughly prepared for each class, approached each class situation positively, and she made sure her students knew what they were all striving for.
"The one thing I have not changed in my 57 years of teaching is discipline -- maybe the approach, but never the end result," she wrote. "I respect every student and they know it. I expect the same from them.
As I go to each class, I look for some success that day, however small it may be."
Greg Larkins, a librarian at the high school and a member of the Rim Civic Orchestra, said his longtime friend was dedicated to the children of Payson and the field of music.
"We competed against each other back in 1969," he said.
Larkins was teaching in Eloy, Ariz., and Gonzales was teaching in the Phoenix Roosevelt District.
"When she retired, and I was already here, I asked her to (teach) part time at the school, and she's been here ever since," he said. "She organized the Rim Civic Orchestra and was full-time director up until last year."
A month ago, Lois Atkins, who filled in for Gonzales when she could no longer work in the schools, arrived at Payson Regional Medical Center just as Gonzales was being wheeled into emergency surgery.
"And we were writing down drum parts on a package of hospital equipment we'd ripped apart because we couldn't find any paper," Atkins said. "They were taking her off to surgery and we were still writing down the drum parts. It was the drum part for 'Apache Warrior' and she wanted to make sure it was done right."
Atkins said Gonzales chose her as her replacement because the two women had one thing in common: crustiness.
Atkins laughed as she recalled one student who wrote Gonzales a get-well card. It read: "Mrs. Gonzales, please hurry up and get well. Mrs. Atkins is worse than you are."
"And she loved it," Atkins said. "She said, 'I knew I picked the right one.'"
A few hours after Atkins received word that Gonzales had died, she headed to rehearsal with the Rim Civic Orchestra her friend's words ringing in her ears.
"There are no excuses. You must keep playing."
Services are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Payson High School Auditorium.