Al Aldridge thought he was going to get some testing done in advance of an upcoming medical procedure, and then head out to dinner with his wife, Jeannie.
So when they arrived at Gaiser Hall at Clark College, Aldridge was confused.
“My wife had me sucked in all the way,” Aldridge said. “I walked in and heard the music. I said ‘That sounds like a big band.’ I turned back to my wife, and she told me to just trust her and just go inside.”
When he stepped inside, he was greeted by a band composed of students Aldridge had taught over more than three decades at Battle Ground and Prairie high schools.
The performers included alumni who went on to successful careers in music, playing in front of presidents and with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Doc Severinsen, Celine Dion and more.
It was part of a night of celebration for Aldridge arranged by Eric Sawyer, a 1989 Prairie graduate.
“During the past eight months we’ve been putting this event together, I have talked to so many people who knew Al, and it was eye-opening how many lives he touched,” Sawyer said. “And everyone wanted to celebrate Al, someone who is on my personal Mount Rushmore.”
Sawyer said he organized Sunday night’s event because 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Aldridge’s hiring as a music teacher at Battle Ground High School.
Aldridge taught at Battle Ground for several years, then moved to Prairie High when that school opened in 1979. He continued to teach music at Prairie until 2003.
He also coached girls basketball, softball and water polo. Aldridge remained the girls basketball coach at Prairie until 2012, becoming one of the most successful coaches in state history. He coached four more seasons of women’s basketball at Clark College.
The night was filled with music and tributes to Aldridge, including several done by video. Don Freeman, the longtime baseball coach at Prairie, shared a video tribute from Blaine, where he was celebrating the holidays with family.
“There is no one I admire more than Al,” Freeman said. “If you took all the trophies and awards he won not only in music, but in basketball, softball and let’s not forget water polo, Al wouldn’t need a man cave, he would need a man castle.”
The event drew about 300 people to Gaiser Hall, but they represented only a fraction of the lives Aldridge impacted.
“If you took all the people whose lives were touched by Al, it would fill a high school gymnasium, and we would have to turn people away at the door,” Freeman said.
Aldridge, 72, said he was overwhelmed by the event.
“It was such a great surprise,” Aldridge said. “The band tonight was fantastic. I was fighting back tears just sitting here listening to them. I’m just so touched that so many people would come from so far away for this event. It’s a special night.”