About 1,000 people packed the Miami Beach Senior High auditorium April 28 for the Beach High Rock Ensemble's 40th anniversary concert. Performers and guests came from near and far to celebrate the last performance led by beloved music director (and Rock Ensemble founder) Doug Burris. After 41 years on the job, Burris, 70, is retiring at year's end.
The concert featured performances by groupings of Rock Ensemble members from 1972 through 2012, including Exposé lead singer Ann Curless (class of '82), who performed Don't Cry Out Loud..
VIP attendees included former Surfside Mayor Paul Novack (Beach High Hall of Fame 2011), producer/songwriter Rudy Perez and Miami-Dade County School Board member Martin Karp.
"It was really beautiful. I still feel like I'm going to wake up. It was like one of those magical moments - a perfect evening, " said Burris, who described the event as "40 years in the making."
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Burris came to Miami (via Highland Falls, N.Y.) in 1968 to earn a master's degree in music education at the University of Miami. In 1971, he applied for a job as a guitar teacher at Beach High. Burris was 28 - and used a walking stick, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the previous year.
"A year later, I asked (then-principal) Dr. Solomon Lichter if I could start a rock group. He said yes. It has been ongoing ever since, " recalled Burris, who has been confined to a wheelchair since 1976 and today is a quadriplegic.
Over the years, the Rock Ensemble has performed around the nation, received top honors and been featured on CNN, CBS, MTV and in numerous newspapers and magazines.
Burris, too, has received accolades - including the National MS Society National Achievement Award (2003). The City of Miami Beach proclaimed April 11, 2012, "Doug Burris Day" and awarded him a key to the City (he sported it proudly on a gold chain during the concert).
He says he's extremely grateful to Miami-Dade County Schools, the city of Miami Beach, the administration and his fellow teachers for their understanding and support.
"Doug Burris has taught us that despite adversity, if we focus with passion and drive, it's possible to change lives and the world, " said Frankie Trullenque (class of '86), event producer and emcee.
"He's soft spoken yet commands love and respect, " adds Novack of Burris. "He's able to teach a diverse group of students how to play all sorts of instruments without being able to physically show them. He's an inspiration."
Burris plans to write a book after retiring - it will be "somewhat biographical" or a novel based on events in his life. "It's not a sad story at all, but positive, " he says. "My life is not perfect, but there are peaks and valleys in everybody's life. Try to go from peak to peak."
Event proceeds ($13,500) will benefit the Rock Ensemble Foundation and the National MS Society. To purchase a DVD of the concert, visit www.rockensemble.com.