NEWARK — It’s only fitting that Journey’s popular song “Don’t Stop Believin'” became “our song” for Diana Wightman and her Liberty Middle School music students.
The school’s band director since 2007 has spent 27 years in the music department for Newark City Schools, and 32 years in music education overall. So it has been quite the journey for Wightman, one on which she consistently believed in her students, many of who were learning music for the first time.
“Don’t Stop Believin'” was the final song performed last week by Liberty’s stage band, with Wightman directing and accompanying them in her final retirement concert before an appreciative crowd in the school’s gym. Afterward, there were a couple of surprises in store.
Austin Frias is a Newark High School senior and former Wightman student, who will attend Ohio State University as a music major in the fall. He and his mom, Brandy, informed Wightman they had partnered with the Licking County Foundation, creating a scholarship in her name.
“When I first came in, I had no music background, and I ended up being able to conduct the symphony orchestra in high school,” said Frias, who plays the flute. “From the beginning, she was a leader. I was not a beginner. From the day I came in, she pushed me to be in the best position I could be. It’s that way with every student. They know they’re valued, by the amount of love she gives.”
Then, Newark High School band director Lee Auer had another surprise for Wightman. The “Don’t Stop Believin'” award scholarship has also been established in her honor.
“Thousands and thousands of dollars of her own money, and effort, has been put to work for these kids,” Auer said. “She literally put her money where her mouth was, and it has allowed so many deserving kids to continue on with the band program in high school.”
At the concert, Wightman directed the sixth grade band, seventh grade percussion ensemble class, eighth grade percussion ensemble class, the seventh and eighth grade band, and the stage band in performances. The stage band practices twice a week after school, and has performed all over the community, and at Cedar Point and Kings Island. Last week alone, they had three concerts.
Liberty principal Brent Fickes has seen firsthand Wightman’s impact upon students. His son, Jack, is in the seventh grade band on trumpet and also plays in the stage band.
“She’s had a tremendous impact on so many kids,” Fickes said. “It’s pretty remarkable, how she treats them like family and takes a lot of pride in them. She goes the extra mile for any kids who want to be a part of it. She’s a powerful leader, and a joy to be around. She has an unbelievable work ethic, and the amount of time she puts in is second to none.”
Fickes said Wightman takes sixth grade students with no previous musical experience and gives them a head start. “She does instrument fitting, and allows them to get one step ahead,” he said.
Melissa Anderson joined the staff at Liberty in 2014, and saw Wightman transform her son Theo into a musician. The seventh grader had a trombone solo during one of the songs. “He had no desire to be part of music,” Anderson said. “Then, he wanted to play drums, but ended up on the trombone.”
Anderson presented Wightman with the musical arrangement for “Don’t Stop Believin,'” signed by the students.
Quotes from eighth graders were read about Wightman. “She gave me a passion for music,” one student said. “She’s the reason I’m still in band. I was home schooled for a while, but she still made that happen,” said another. “She has given me the right tools in my toolbelt, to succeed as a musician, and as a leader,” a final one said.
Wightman thanked Fickes for “allowing me the freedom to do the things I never dreamed I would be able to,” she said. She thinks the Pride of Newark has a great future under Auer. “He’s here for a long time, and will build our program back up again, after some rough years,” Wightman said.
“She’ll still be with the Pride of Newark, giving her lessons,” Auer assured.
On the back of the concert program, Wightman left a final note:
“To my wonderful students and parents, past and present:
Thank You for joining me through the years on this remarkable journey! Together, we have shared joys and laughter, challenges and celebrations, and enjoyed the rewards of hard work. Most importantly, we have created bonds of wonderful friendship through the magic of music making. I hope that in my band room you found a kind and reassuring place to grow and express yourself. I know that you and the amazing memories we have made will live forever in my heart.”