Nancy Lee’s 35-plus-year teaching career has included building high school choir and musical theater programs nearly from scratch at Southwest and Washburn high schools. It’s also included directing musicals in rural Iowa and teaching the children of East Coast mafiosos.
On June 13, Lee will retire after more than 21 years in Minneapolis Public Schools, the past 11 of them at Washburn.
Lee, a Southwest Minneapolis resident, said she plans to focus on an intensive summer theater program she founded for college students near her hometown of Osage, Iowa, located near the Minnesota-Iowa border. She also said she wants to find more professional theater opportunities in the Twin Cities.
“I think I’ll be much more project-based during the school year here, and then summers will be my big work time,” she said.
Lee grew up in a farming family, though she said her dad and grandma both were musically inclined. She said she originally took band in high school, before her choir director persuaded her to join his group.
“[He] really kind of inspired me to do this work,” she said.
After high school Lee enrolled at Luther College, where she graduated with a degree in music education. Her first teaching job was in rural Farmington, Iowa, where she taught fifth- through 12th-graders and directed her first musical.
After a year, Lee and her husband, Hans, moved to New Jersey, where he was studying to become a Lutheran pastor. There, she taught at two schools, including a Catholic school in the mafia district of Trenton, New Jersey’s capital city.
“They thought I was the most exotic creature to ever walk in the room [because of my] accent,” Lee said. “The nuns looked at my husband, who’s Norwegian, blond, blue-eyed, and they go, ‘You better not come into our neighborhood, but you’ll be fine.’”
The Lees moved back to the Midwest after a year, and Hans finished seminary and eventually began his pastoral career. After stints in Iowa and Wisconsin, their family settled in Minneapolis, where Lee took teaching jobs at Armatage Elementary School and then at Southwest High School in 2000.
Lee said Southwest did not have a choir when she arrived and that the principal gave her a year to get a program up and running. She said 15 students took choir that first year and more than 150 took it by her fifth year.
In 2008, Lee moved to Washburn High School, where the district had required teachers to reapply for their jobs as part of a “fresh start” initiative. She said Washburn had about 35 choir students at the time but that she gradually built the program to include 200 students. She also put on the first musicals at Washburn in years.
“All the equations were there to say, ‘This can be successful,’” Lee said. “But it was truly starting over.”
‘Bring out the best’
Washburn parent Sue Johnson said Lee had to beg students to participate in the musicals when she directed her first show at Washburn. Nowadays, Johnson said there are not enough parts for all the kids.
Johnson, whose three kids have all done choir, said Lee is someone whom students know they can trust. She said she was impressed with how Lee coordinated a recent trip to New York City with over 100 choir students.
“She orchestrates it just as she conducts her choirs,” Johnson said.
Eric Sayre, a 2006 Southwest graduate who is now band director at South High School, said Lee was encouraging but had high expectations.
Sayre, who participated in Southwest’s musicals and an a capella group Lee supervised, said she always picked music that felt meaningful to students. He said she helped him write an original choir piece as a senior and then let him perform it.
Other parents and former students also said Lee had the ability to make everyone feel welcome.
Alma Neuhaus is a 2014 Washburn graduate who will begin a master’s program in vocal performance this fall at Juilliard. She said Lee’s classes were as much about creating community as they were about making music. Neuhaus said Lee gave students space to address things happening outside of her classroom.
Parent Deb Brisch-Cramer, who worked with Lee from 2009 to 2013, said Lee welcomed everyone who wanted to participate in the musicals, including students with disabilities. She said students felt they could talk to Lee about anything.
“She just had the ability to really bring out the best in kids,” Brisch-Cramer said.
Lee hasn’t been involved with the hiring of a new Washburn choir teacher, but she said she thought the school had strong candidates for the position. She said her biggest thrill in teaching has been seeing students figure out who they are through music.
The past three years, Lee has received honorable mention honors in the Excellence in Theatre Education contest run by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University. Her choirs have also received high ratings in statewide contests.
Washburn will hold an open-house retirement celebration for Lee on June 5.