OGDEN — It seemed just like any other Tuesday afternoon school sing-along at Dee Elementary.
Longtime music volunteer Phyllis Savage, her shoulders square and her expression resolute, stood and played piano accompaniment for “God Bless America” for her usual, spirited crowd of students.
Then someone passed between Savage’s piano and audience. She looked up and saw Noel Zabriskie, retired Ogden School District superintendent, walk by toward a line of chairs set up in the middle of the room.
Karen Huntsman, wife of philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., walked by, followed by current Superintendent Brad Smith, then Dee Elementary Principal Sondra Jolovich-Motes and several other school and district officials. All sat, facing a three-quarter circle formed by Dee Elementary’s 449 kindergarten through sixth-grade students.
Savage’s eyes softened and her shoulders rounded. She put her hand to her chest and adjusted her breathing to hold back tears. This was not going to be like any other school sing-along.
Savage, who has volunteered an estimated 8,000 hours at Dee Elementary in the past 13 years since she retired after 45 years of teaching, has won the 2012 Huntsman Award for educational volunteering.
Savage, who turns 81 next month, watched as her friends, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren filed into the room. Zabriskie led the stunned music teacher to the empty chair reserved for her.
“This wonderful woman taught school and has been giving to children her whole life,” Zabriskie said. “Then she retired, and what did she do? She volunteered.”
Huntsman told students a little about the award.
“We honor some principals and some teachers,” she said. “But we only honor one volunteer.”
The Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education, now in their 20th year, recognize outstanding principals, teachers and volunteers from around the state. Candidates are nominated by their peers. The award comes with a $10,000 check and a seat of honor at an upcoming awards banquet.
“I have witnessed firsthand the joy that Mrs. Savage brings as she enters a school to spend time with the students she loves, encourages and teaches by using her talent of music and her enthusiasm for life,” Zabriskie said in his nomination letter. “Students are drawn to her like a magnet and are sad when she leaves.”
Sandy Waite, a first-grade teacher at Dee Elementary School, added her own thoughts.
“Phyllis Savage is not only an exemplary volunteer, she is a work of art, a masterpiece, a symphony,” Waite said. “We love and revere her. No one deserves the recognition of this award more than she.”
Jolovich-Motes also praised Savage.
“Phyllis fills the rooms of Dee School with music for our students and staff. Each week, you will find Phyllis teaching and helping our students learn through music, all the while volunteering her time … She brings great joy to our students, staff and community. Her smile and love of learning is infectious, and she is an inspiration to all in her dedication to the success of our students through the gift of song.”
Invited at the end of the ceremony to introduce anyone she wanted to, Savage looked at her students.
“The people I want to introduce are you, boys and girls,” Savage said. “You have given me so much joy. My reward is coming to sing with you every day. Thank you so much.”
As students filed out and headed home, family and friends lingered to give Savage hugs and pose for pictures.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said of the honor. “I’m so extremely grateful and so happy.”
Savage joked that she might put her prize money toward replacing the 13-year-old Nissan she also drives to her second volunteering job, at the Treehouse Museum.
Then again, she’s pretty attached to her old car, she said, and, “it’s hard to let go when you love something.”