Doris Ludder thought she left choral teaching behind decades ago.
But a group of her Ponce Middle School students from the early 1950s never forgot her and put her to work again Saturday night at a surprise celebration to honor Ludder on her 95th birthday.
The group of about 20 — who traveled from around the country to attend the party at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Pinecrest — sang a reworked version of the 1954 Chordettes’ classic, Mr. Sandman, whose new lyric beckoned Ludder to come lead them in song again for renditions of two of her favorite songs: O Come, O Come Emmanuel and God Bless America.
The tables glimmered with yellow roses and candles. Cary Findlay, 74, Ludder’s student in her seventh grade chorus class from 1950 to 1951, found his spot on stage at the church.
“Boys and girls get in position,” he commanded a choir of men and women, now in their mid-70s. The retired CPA turned toward the audience. “Ladies and gentleman, this is the first day of class.”
Except this time, unlike the setting of wooden desks at Ponce, there was a special red velvet and gold throne for the star of the night, who was wearing a long cobalt blue dress with silver sparkles and her favorite pearls. She first got teary eyed, then smiled and laughed when the students finished the first song.
Ludder turned to the audience and said, “Didn’t I teach them well?”
For Emmanuel, Ludder climbed up on the stage with agility and directed the choir into the song.
“Are you ready out there?” she asked as she led them on God Bless America and raised her arms in a sign of victory as the song ended.
“She was so pretty that we enjoyed being in the choir,” said David Hays, 75. “We certainly did enjoy going to class to see such a pretty woman. I’m a former air force pilot and Vietnam veteran and I have never forgotten her all of these years.”
The feeling was mutual as Ludder referred to some of her former students by name.
“I’m completely a gasp with having all of my boys and girls here together. I wanted to teach them the love of music and particularly the love of singing but they learned so much more,” the beloved teacher said.
“She encouraged me by giving me parts to sing,” Findlay said. “She instilled a lot confidence in me ... She told us that if we worked hard we could do anything we wanted.”
Federal court judge Paul Huck, 72, a student in her 1952-54 seventh and eighth grade classes added, “She is the best teacher any of us have ever had. She always had a sparkle in her eyes and was just beautiful.”
Findlay, a co-organizer, laughed when he recalled the prep work that went beforehand.
“I sent the music to everyone so they could practice in the shower. Some girls said their voices were much lower than they used to be. My answer was: We need more baritones.”
Ludder retired from teaching in 1982 from Miami Palmetto Senior High where she was a counselor. While she raised young voices in song in her Ponce classroom Harry S. Truman served as United States president and rock and roll was still two years away from conquering popular culture.
“She was loved by everyone,” said her Ponce student Laura Wright, 73, who went on to become a science teacher and a founding board member of Miami City Ballet. “She has had a tremendous impact on my life since I was 10 years old and I still live next door to her in the summer. She is the dearest person. Now I have no parents and she is the light in my life.”