When we are dreaming alone it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality. – Dom Helder Camara
Most people go through life without a definitive idea of what they want to be when they grow up. Early on, little revelations start to get in the way of childhood dreams. Too slow for the NFL. Poor vision won’t cut it in the astronaut program. Pirates aren’t the fun-loving bunch you thought they were. But what happens when you know, without a doubt, what you want to do? You can taste it. It’s your destiny. And then you find out you’re wrong, it’s not going to happen. Maybe only then can you discover what God really has in mind for you.
Ralph Opacic was two years behind me at Lake Braddock Secondary School and very gifted musically. He was Curly in Oklahoma and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. He sang solos in the school chorus and was the Student Director in their productions. He was ready to take the music world by storm. He’d be the next Billy Joel. Singer. Songwriter. When he was on stage, girls loved him, and guys wanted to be him. The Piano Man. So Ralph left Virginia to go to Cal State Long Beach, where the Carpenters got their start. Then it got quiet. We lost track of him. Ralph was such a nice guy, I figured he’d been chewed up and spit out by the brutal entertainment industry. What a shame.
In August of 2010 I was watching the Emmy Awards. I had made a solemn promise to my daughter to watch the event, in familial support for one of her favorite TV programs, Glee, which was up for several awards. She was away at college, so I was on the honor system. I turned it on, but that didn’t mean I had to watch it. I had joined Facebook several days before, and there were new worlds to explore in cyberspace.
I was friending and commenting like a fiend when I got a text from my daughter: There he is!! I glanced up at the television as the camera cut from Matthew Morrison performing on stage to Betty White in the audience. There was a guy sitting next to Betty White who looked very familiar and I mentally ticked down every recent movie and TV show I could think of, and just couldn’t place the actor’s name. But it was like I really knew him. I liked him. How could I not place his name? I looked down at my Facebook news feed and got my answer. Three friends from high school (uber-posters Susan, Sarah, and Michelle) had started a flurry of messages, starting with “OMG, that’s Ralph sitting next to Betty White!!”
A quick Google search later I found out that Ralph is President of the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) in Santa Ana, California, where Matthew Morrison had gone to school. I thought that was pretty cool: Ralph was running a school of the arts in California, and able to celebrate with one of his famous alumni at the Emmy Awards.
I didn’t know the half of it.
A month later I was sitting at a dinner with twenty other people at the Cheeca Lodge in the Florida Keys, and began a conversation with Scott Bornstein, the CEO of MemoryPower. He was talking about his kids and mentioned that his daughter had spent time on Broadway. Her interest had been sparked by a remarkable experience in high school. In Orange County. At OCHSA. Small world. Scott told me that I’d be blown away if I could see the amazing things that happen on the OCHSA campus.
So I did some homework. After graduating with a degree in music, Ralph performed in local bars and sang solos at the Crystal Cathedral. The career wasn’t quite going according to plan, so Ralph took a job as a high school teacher, and began working with thirty students in an after-school music program. Instead of Handel’s Messiah and other timeless classics, Ralph’s chorus sang John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K in the USA,” and Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose.” Performers tumbled and moonwalked across the stage. Ralph started recruiting football players and cheerleaders (for Glee fans, does this sound familiar?) and soon had three hundred students participating. He had a dream of turning it into a full-time school, but had no money, no building, and very little time. What he had was a vision, and a passion to communicate his dream to anyone who would listen.
People talk about the profound ways that music can touch their hearts. But Ralph was able to share a vision that was more powerful and more galvanizing than any song imaginable: the vision of a world-class arts school that would allow kids to pursue their dreams in music, dance, and the visual arts. His goals were lofty. His passion was palpable. His optimism was unflagging.
On his quest, many people ignored the pleas and some thought he was crazy. Nothing but a dreamer. Thank goodness. Soon, some important and influential people were paying attention.
Ralph was introduced to Mike Harrah, a local developer, who provided a building and the initial financing for a school site. OCHSA opened as a Charter School in 2000 with 900 students. The OCHSA campus now takes up two city blocks in downtown Santa Ana. OCHSA has been recognized not only as one of the leading arts programs in the country, but as a leading academic school as well. The US News and World Report named it one of the top five hundred high schools in the United States. The school has a 100% graduation rate and 99% of the students go on to college. As an employer, OCHSA has been recognized by the Orange County Register as one of the top places to work in Orange County.
What started as a thirty-student after-hours chorus is now a full-time arts school with 1,800 students, grades seven through twelve. Last year there were 3,700 applications for only 350 openings. Students come from more than 100 cities in Southern California and more than 10,000 patrons witness the 100 arts and music programs performed by OCHSA students every year.
OCHSA’s impact isn’t based purely on formal performances and limited only to Orange County. Every day students are pursuing their dreams and receiving a world-class education. Some have achieved tremendous success in their chosen fields. Matthew Morrison is a household name and has helped make musicals mainstream on television again. Susan Egan was the original Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, and has had a successful career in theater and film. Other OCHSA graduates are making their mark in theater, film, dance, and design. Others excel in business and academia. But beyond their personal successes, they continue to inspire others. To work hard. To persevere. To dream.
As a successful singer you may touch thousands of people in your career. A few super-successful singers may touch millions – for a short while. But Ralph Opacic is developing the talents and nurturing the dreams of thousands of students, who will, in turn, potentially touch millions of people – for generations to come.
I hope that Betty White finds out the details of Ralph ‘s story and has the chance to sit with him again at the Emmy Awards. Then she can gush on her own Facebook page, “OMG, I got to sit with Ralph Opacic tonight!”
You know the guy. The singer. The leader. The dreamer.
Here’s a video of OCHSA’s 2012 Gala, featuring some very talented students and alumni: