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Lee Benson
Paul Watson, music teacher extraordinaire, is retiring after 30 years at Wasatch Junior High in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — With the kind of timing only a true virtuoso might fully appreciate, Paul Watson is exiting stage left this week.

When he closes the door to the music room at Wasatch Junior High School this Thursday afternoon, that will be it for a 30-year performance. Done. Over. C’est fini.

Paul doesn’t look much like a retiree. He’s only 55, and there’s hardly an ounce of fat on him because of all the bicycling he does.

But he’s qualified for his pension and he long ago paid back Utah State University the year he owed them for the education scholarship they once gave him, so he’s decided to go out, as he puts it, “When I’m at the top of my game, so to speak.”

If teaching were like the NBA, say, or the NFL, he probably wouldn’t be leaving — now that he’s a free agent.

Instead of merely begging, school administrators would be throwing so many big fat offers at him he’d have to hire a team of agents just to sift through them all.

“If we had the money, yeah, he’d command a great amount,” says Carol Goodsen, music director for Granite School District. “But we don’t, so …”

So they’re really going to miss him.

There was abundant proof of that the other night when they held a surprise bon-voyage party at the school and Paul just stood there, in one place, for three and a half hours until the line finally petered out. Students and parents from his first class were there, students and parents from this year’s class were there, and all years in between.

Not all of the 10,000-plus students he’s taught — six class periods a day since 1984 — were there, but a lot of them were.

His legacy is that every single one of his orchestras and bands, for 30 years straight, have won superior ratings at state and district festivals. Superior is as high as it gets. His kids have never graded lower. No exceptions.

Through the years, plenty of people who look at these things have noticed. In no particular order, Mr. Watson was Granite School District Teacher of the Year in 2001-02, American String Teachers Association Teacher of the Year in 1997, named Outstanding Music Educator by the Utah Music Educators Association in 1996, winner of the Granite District Excel Award in 1993, winner of the Spirit of Jazz award by the International Association of Jazz Educators in 2008, recipient of the Huntsman Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2001 and, most recently, winner of the Sorenson Legacy Award for Excellence in Arts Education in 2013.

He needs a trophy case to hold his trophy case.

His renown isn’t that he’s the greatest musician any of them have ever heard, just the greatest music teacher.

It all started quite by chance. Paul grew up on a family farm in the small community of Marion in the Kamas Valley. He began playing the trombone in seventh grade, little realizing it would set his life’s course.

His plan, if he had one, was to be an electrician. But in his senior year at South Summit High School, the counselor pulled aside the school’s best trombone player and told him Utah State University was willing to give him a music education scholarship if he’d commit to at least one year of teaching in a Utah school after he got his degree.

Paul said yes, and in 1984, 25 years old and freshly graduated, he interviewed with Granite District and secured the job at Wasatch teaching seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, aka “the hormone years.”

It took some time for him to learn about them and them about him.

“I honestly haven’t thought about discipline in 25 years,” he says, “and for the first five years it kept me awake all night.”

He came to realize the benefits of being direct and honest with kids.

“I learned how to treat them and confront them,” he says. “If someone’s out of place, I’ll immediately remind them that they’re holding us all up with their behavior. That’s about all. At first I thought, they’re going to hate you. It took five years to realize they’re going to hate you when you stop believing in them, when you stop expecting higher behavior.

“When you have a good relationship with kids, it’s amazing what you don’t have to put up with.”

“He has made it his great gift to see what students need to know so they can do it on their own,” says Goodsen of the district office. “He is one of our great teacher leaders.”

Paul’s plan is to join his brother Mark, who owns a commercial construction company. He will be his job estimator and bidder.

“I’m leaving what I know really well and entering into something else with a 55-year-old brain,” he says.

Still, after 30 years, he admits to looking forward to a bit of a break.

“It’s incredibly hard work,” he says. “There’s a lot of stress if you’re trying to do what’s good and right and healthy for kids. Emotionally, they need a lot.

“But I loved it,” he says, “loved every day of it.”

So, obviously, did everyone else.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]