The last few days have been an emotional affair for Frank Lestina, Vernon Hills High School's longtime fine arts supervisor and orchestra director.
"I had to stay off Facebook for 1½ days because I just couldn't cry all that much," Lestina told an audience of about 350 parents, staff members, students and former students who gathered Saturday afternoon at the high school to honor him before his retirement later this month.
Lestina conducted an orchestra made up of about 90 students and former students in one last performance of Dvorak's "Symphony No. 8."
"The best gift you could give me is the opportunity to get up and conduct one of the best orchestras I've ever conducted," he told his enthusiastic audience, who gave him a long standing ovation.
Lestina will be wrapping up 33 years as a music educator. He began in 1980 as the orchestra director at downstate Danville High School, and moved to Libertyville High School in 1986. He stayed there until Vernon Hills High opened in 2000.
Several former students came from out of state to perform Saturday. One was violinist Steven Cheng, a 1994 Libertyville High graduate who is now the concertmaster for the St. Louis Philharmonic.
Cheng worked on a nine-minute video of photos of Lestina through the years set to music Lestina conducted.
"As a teacher, he was demanding, but he was funny," Cheng said. "He was always looking out for the students' best interest."
Kiju Joh, a 1999 Libertyville High graduate, agreed.
"There is no way I could not have been here," said Joh, a violinist with the Houston Symphony. "I have so much gratitude and appreciation for all that he taught me."
Among the spectators was Jenny Kemp, of River Forest, a 1993 graduate of Libertyville High, where she played the oboe.
"Mr. Lestina was such a monumental part in developing not only my love of music but music as such a centerpiece of my life," Kemp said.
Saturday's orchestra rehearsed just once in the morning and gave a great performance, said Vernon Hills High senior Jacob Visick, who played the bassoon.
"It was really exciting. There were a lot of people I recognized from previous years," Jacob said.
Lestina also instilled a sense of community and camaraderie among parents, said Marc and Lori Abel, of Libertyville, whose two daughters graduated from Libertyville High School.
"He always went the extra mile," Lori Abel said.
"It really involved more than just the kids," Marc Abel added.