Chris Touchton's wife led him by the arm into the worship hall where his 40th birthday gift awaited.
Blindfolded with a black mask, Touchton couldn't see the band arranged in a semicircle on the stage, waiting for their cue. Most of the players were his former students at Southside Fundamental Middle School, where he'd directed the band for six years before the school closed in 2009.
Now in high school and college, the players had reunited on the sly Saturday at the Salvation Army Community Worship Center to give their beloved Mr. T a birthday to remember.
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Touchton realized soon after arriving at Southside that he had lucked into one of best band director gigs in Pinellas County.
The kids at the school on 10th Street S worked hard. Their parents were engaged. The band was consistently rated one of the best in Florida.
In January 2009, district officials announced that Southside would close at the end of the school year. The explanations about budget cuts and declining enrollment did nothing to soften the crushing blow.
That May, Touchton led the band for one final concert at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.
"We're never going to let the music die," he told the kids before the show. "It's not going to die tonight. And guess what? It's still not going to die, is it?"
The students shouted their agreement.
It was in that spirit that Suzie Touchton reached out to former students from Southside and Tarpon Springs Middle School, where her husband has taught since 2010. He played a key role in developing that school's Leadership Conservatory for the Arts program.
With help from family and friends, Suzie — who turns 40 on Monday, two days after her husband -— worked for more than a year to orchestrate Saturday's surprise.
The plan: The couple would have a celebratory lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in Clearwater. Then she would persuade him to don a blindfold and drive him to the church. Meanwhile, James Dykes, the couple's friend and the band director at Palm Harbor University High, would lead the kids in a crash rehearsal, then turn the baton over to Touchton when he arrived.
Some of the students who showed up Saturday are majoring in music. Others haven't picked up their instruments in years.
They all showed up for Mr. T.
"He made us feel like we were a family and that we were working toward something," said Mia Hartley, who played alto saxophone at Southside and is now studying music therapy and premedicine at Florida State University. "At such a young age, it's so wonderful to feel like you belong to something that's so special."
Andrew Smith stuck with the clarinet at Tarpon Springs Middle at Touchton's urging. Now Smith is a junior at Tarpon Springs High, and still playing.
"It will be cool to see his reaction," Smith said. "I hope he cries."
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The blindfold came off, and the band started Happy Birthday.
Touchton recognized the faces of his former students. Daughters Kira and Emma were among them.
"How in the world ..." he began, then looked at his wife, shook his head and smiled. The 80 or so people in the pews — Touchton's friends and family, and parents of the players — began to clap.
"I love you and I'd like to give you your gift," Suzie said. "Would you like to come conduct your kids?"
They played a jazzy arrangement of Hot Cross Buns, affectionately known as Hot Chris Buns. Before a medley of superhero tunes, Suzie wrapped a wrinkled Superman cape around his neck, a gift some Southside students had given him years ago.
The band closed with a Christian hymn called Nettleton, a favorite of Touchton's that he directed at Southside. His arms dipped and dived as he guided the band through the song's soft ebbs and soaring swells.
When they nailed the ending, the audience stood and cheered. Touchton signaled his approval with a few taps of his chest. Then he wiped tears from the corners of his eyes.
"Sometimes you're not really sure how much of an impact you make as a teacher, but when you see something like this, it's pretty evident," he said afterward. "It's pretty amazing."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.