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Composer offers surprise gift to Shaler orchestra teacher

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Bethany Hofstetter | Shaler Journal
Shaler Area High School seniors John Beckas, left, and Ken Andrews presented their orchestra teacher Shirley Rankin with a Trans-Siberian Orchestra program from the Pittsburgh concert signed by Paul O’Neill, Trans-Siberian Orchestra composer, lyricist and producer, and a $1,000 donation from O’Neill at the students’ annual winter concert.

Before the Shaler Area High School orchestra students sat down to perform one of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's signature arrangements in the annual winter concert, two students presented orchestra teacher Shirley Rankin with a gift from the composer himself.

Shaler Area seniors John Beckas and Ken Andrews took the microphone before the final concert song, “Wizards in Winter,” composed by Trans-Siberian Orchestra composers and co-producers Paul O'Neill and Robert Kinkel, to honor Rankin for her dedication and present her with a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert program signed by O'Neill, and a $1,000 donation from the producer.

“It's amazing,” Rankin said with tears in her eyes after receiving the gift. “I'm speechless, and it doesn't happen often.”

Rankin said the signed program was special enough but to also receive the $1,000 donation from O'Neill, “that money, we can do so much.”

Beckas and Andrews attended the Trans-Siberian Orchestra show in Pittsburgh on Dec. 7. The second-row seats were a birthday gift to Beckas from his mother. While the pair, who both play upright bass in the school orchestra, relished the second-row experience, it was the chance meeting with O'Neill after the concert that they never will forget.

O'Neill signed the students' programs and gave each of them a Trans-Siberian Orchestra jacket. But when the students told O'Neill about their school orchestra program and Rankin, he grabbed another program and signed it especially for Rankin.

On the inside of the program, O'Neill autographed the booklet to “the Rankinator,” a playful nickname the students gave their orchestra teacher, who pushes their musical abilities in class.

He then wrote Rankin a thankful message on the back cover of the program: “An artist can create 1,000 works of art, but a teacher creates 1,000 artists.”

When Beckas and Andrews told O'Neill there are 49 students in the orchestra this year, the largest class since Rankin started teaching at Shaler Area 10 years ago, he pulled out his billfold and handed the teens $1,000 in cash for the program.

After the experience, Andrews and Beckas could barely contain their excitement.

“We couldn't believe what happened; we were speechless,” Andrews said. “Random people don't just give two teens $1,000.”

On the ride home, the students knew the presentation to Rankin had to be special, so they kept the gifts a secret for a week and a half in order to make a public presentation at the annual winter orchestra concert.

“It was a secret to keep, but a story we couldn't wait to tell,” Beckas said. “We decided the goal of this was to show (Rankin) her efforts are just as much appreciated as ours.”

Rankin has all of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra CDs and started introducing Trans-Siberian Orchestra arrangements into her students' repertoire five or six years ago.

“The kids love it,” Rankin said. “It's technical, but when they like it, they practice it a lot so they rise to the challenge.”

This year's senior class is the first fourth-grade class Rankin started teaching when she expanded the orchestra program into the elementary level. The gift makes the class even more memorable.

“They're almost like my own kids,” Rankin said. “I've seen them grow, so it means a lot to me.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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