A beloved musical theatre teacher who died suddenly on the weekend is being remembered for nurturing the talents of many young people at an arts high school in Toronto.
Paul Aikins, a teacher and director in the musical theatre department at the Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA), died on Saturday.
In a message on the school website, ESA principal Grant Fawthrop said the school is “grief-stricken” by the news of Aikins’ death. ESA is a specialized public arts-academic high school.
“Paul’s impact at ESA, our music theatre program, and its many students was enormous. This loss to our community hurts deeply and it will for sometime,” Fawthrop writes.
Aikins worked at ESA for the past 20 years and was a department head for 10 years. He was artistic director of the school’s show choir Splash, named national grand champions five times.
‘He did what he taught and he taught what he did’
Heather Bambrick, a jazz vocalist, performer and educator, described Aikins as a “powerhouse” in an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. Aikins, her friend and colleague, was “driven” and “fun-loving,” she said.
“He was a cheerleader for everyone he worked with, whether it was a student or a colleague. He had it all. He was such an incredible source of power and energy in any room, even if it was just being quiet, even it was standing back in the class and watching kids do their thing,” she said.
“He was an incredible individual. He did what he taught and he taught what he did.”
In a Facebook post, Bambrick writes: “I’m shocked to learn that a wonderful colleague, educator, mentor, friend, supporter, and artistic ally has passed away suddenly.
“I met Paul Aikins when I first started working with the vocal majors at the Etobicoke School of the Arts. He was smart, talented, kind, challenging, inquisitive, and had the most wicked and wonderful sense of humour. Boy, was there ever a wonderful energy whenever he was in the room!”
Bambrick, who became friends with him after she was “the jazz person” to visit the classroom, said Aikins had a good relationship with his students.
“There was a wonderful give-and-take between him and the kids he worked with. At the same time, he did command respect. You could tell that, if the kids felt they needed him to be their rock, their anchor, some sense of grounding for them, he was there for them.”
Former students are posting tributes to Aikins on Facebook.
‘You are the reason I am where I am today’
Ally Arnold writes: “Life ended far to soon for you and I’m so sad I never got the chance to say goodbye. You are the reason I am where I am today and taught me so much during my years at ESA.
“Most importantly, you taught me how to be strong and how to lead people to be the best they can be. I learned so much with you as a mentor and friend, and don’t want to believe what has happened.”
Arnold added: “I hope you can rest in peace knowing you achieved so much and helped a tremendous amount of young people become the best version of themselves.”
‘He pushed me in the best way to succeed’
Phil Skala writes: “He saw a potential in me, he nurtured my talent, he inspired me, and he ultimately turned this ‘band kid’ into a musical theatre artist.
“I have no words to express how grateful I am for everything this man had done for me during high school and how he pushed me in the best way to succeed and reach my full potential. Gone far too soon, my friend, teacher, and inspiration.”
Aikins was the brother of Anne Marie Aikins, media spokesperson for Metrolinx, the provincial transportation agency.
In a post on Twitter, she said a private family service will be held this week and plans are in the works for a musical celebration of his life.
“He will be missed by so many,” she said.
According to a website of The Masterclass Series, a summer musical theatre and dance camp of which he was the director, Aikins worked professionally in music theatre for 12 years. His career highlights include performances at The Stratford Festival, Huron Country Playhouse, NCL Cruiseline, and Canada’s first mega-musical, Napoleon.
He had co-directed and produced several shows at ESA, including Les Miserables, Footloose, Seussical, Cats, Anne of Green Gables, Urinetown, A Chorus Line, and Cabaret.
Aikins had a degree in vocal music from Western University, and was a graduate of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.