(photo by Sean Fitz-)

WALGROVE AVE ¬ó He thought the phone call was a scam, a travel outfit scouring the country for performers like a vulture.

After hanging up, Santa Monica resident Ron Theile was convinced that he wouldn’t hear from KIconcerts again, and he’d go back to Walgrove Avenue for a regular day of teaching.

They must be canvassing choirs and schools, he thought. They’ve probably called dozens of others.

But it wasn’t a scam. The agent from KIconcerts was calling to invite Theile and the Mark Twain Ringers to perform at five venues for the 2012 Olympics. After the phone call, he received a follow-up e-mail from the Greater London Authority, confirming the offer and asking for Theile and his ensemble to perform at Exhibition Road, the Weymouth Bayside Festival, Southwark Cathedral, London Live (Victoria Park) and Potters Fields Park.

Born in Chicago, he grew up hungry for music. He started ringing English handbells at 10, and after corporate stints, began a teaching career at Chester W. Nimitz Middle School in 1994. Five years later, at Mark Twain Middle School, he embarked on a musical journey that would lead to his astounding accomplishment.

Theile has worked with children for years, getting his start in church choirs and as a Little League coach in Santa Monica. At middle schools, he started with chorus and dance, saying he fell in love with teaching. He’s worked his way from chorus and dance to English, math, history, science and bells.

But the 60-year-old polymath has always had his eyes on London’s Southwark Cathedral. He says it’s a ringer’s dream — something on his bucket list. Come August, Theile gets to cross it off.

For whom the bells toll

In 2011, filmmakers Aleksandra Wolska and Eric Thiermann produced “It Tolls for Thee: Bells and Their Stories,” a documentary that gave audiences a look at bells and their cultural and religious implications.

The concept of bell ringing is an age-old tradition, one that has survived and evolved since medieval times. Bells have been steeped in superstition and have been long associated with religious significance. Their uses have gone from consecrated passing bells ¬ó rung to drive away spirits during times of death ¬ó to large church tower bells to small hand-held bells.

Tuned handbells, first developed by English brothers William and Robert Cor in Aldbourne, Wiltshire during the early 18th century, became popular in churches as a form of liturgical accompaniment.

And it was through Theile’s church in Chicago that he got his start. His parents kept him involved in the church, and his friends encouraged him to join the bell choir. Like his students at Mark Twain, Theile said he enjoyed being part of a second family, of an interdependent team.

One of the groups featured in Wolska and Thiermann’s documentary is the Mark Twain Ringers.

There’s roughly seven minutes of footage dedicated to the ringers, and in that small amount of time a lot of ground is covered: everything from the ringers’ sacred repertoire to their hardships at home to their strength as an on-campus refuge.

“[Thiermann] really found the true nature of our choir,” Theile said. “The bottom line is: For us it’s not about the music …. [The ringers] stick together, they help each other, they love each other and we go through these really tough middle school years together. If they have a tough time with their family at home, they turn to their family here.”

The wrong business

After graduating from Fenger High School in 1970, Theile matriculated at Western Illinois University, where he majored in forestry.

“I’m not going to pay for school if you’re going to major in music … musicians don’t make jack,” Theile’s father had said. “They’re wanderers.”

If you’re studying something you’re not interested in, it’s never going to turn out well, said Theile, who put his studies on pause to join the Navy. In September of ‘72, he left Chicago — with his high school sweetheart Cathy — when he was stationed in Long Beach, Calif. Theile was honorably discharged in ‘74 and moved to Santa Monica, where he’s lived ever since.

Starting work as a machinist for Hughes Helicopters, Theile bounced around to make ends meet. Next he worked as a purchasing agent for Dean Industries ¬ó only because he liked working with people.

Then he got lucky. He was hired by Gem Instruments Corporation ¬ó a wholly owned subsidiary of the Gemological Institute of America, a nonprofit specializing in diamonds, colored stones and pearls ¬ó where he would become a member of the executive branch.

After learning about the corporate world for a few years, his time at the institute came to an end. Gem’s then-CEO got axed, and Theile went down, too.

He took one year — “the best of my life” — to focus on raising his two kids, Sean and Kelly, and immersed himself in Santa Monica Little League teams, where he said they played ball for fun, but didn’t like to lose, and church choirs at First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica.

No matter what job Theile had, he was always an active member of the church. He directed and sang in choirs, and throughout it all, kept ringing.

One night at choir, a fellow churchgoer asked Theile if he wanted to be an engineer for May Company California, the chain that would later merge with JW Robinson’s to form Robinsons-May. He said yes.

“I was carrying a tool belt around for May Company, and I was having a blast, making more money than God,” Theile said with a grin on his face.

Though he was busy with his new job, Theile kept coaching. And it was during Little League season that Lupe Simpson, then-principal at Nimitz, approached Theile.

“You’re in the wrong business,” Simpson said. “You need to be a teacher.”

Simpson offered up a deal: If she could match Theile’s pay at May Company, he would have to get his teaching credentials and make the switch. After finishing up a bachelor of science in business at the University of Redlands, Theile received his credentials from Cal State Dominguez Hills. He was ready to take his music skills to the classroom.

A noble offer

As a teacher at Nimitz, Theile sought to use music as a means of enriching his students’ lives and steering them in the right direction. The only problem was that handbells were a costly passion.

“It’s not like [the Los Angeles Unified School District] could just throw out 37 grand,” Theile said. “Simpson and I had to raise enough money to buy the first set of bells. So we sold a heck of a lot of candy.”

But the handbells were a hit. Theile and his ringers quickly started making a splash, especially in Santa Monica. He cites the generosity of Santa Monica residents for helping his ensemble get the exposure and support they needed to perform at local venues.

Theile said he and the ringers are most indebted to Dr. James Smith, director of music ministry at First United, who gave the ringers their first big break. Theile and his ringers forged a long-standing relationship with the church, a venue where they have performed numerous times.

One powerful moment stands out, Theile said. During one performance ¬ó a song about the angels announcing the birth of Jesus ¬ó the ringers walked down the middle aisle of the church to the sounds of a swelling orchestra.

“These big bronze doors just opened and the kids came in one step at a time,” Theile said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

After that, Theile and his ringers were all over SoCal and at rock-star venues like Las Vegas’ Circus Circus. Everybody was getting handbell fever, including Yvonne Noble, the principal from Mark Twain. Soon, she made Theile an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“You live 60 seconds away from Mark Twain,” she said, “and you’re traveling all the way to East L.A. to teach.”

Why not come to her school?

Theile took the bait in ‘99, and brought the bells with him.

Taking on the world

At Mark Twain, handbells isn’t a club; ringing is a rigorous part of the curriculum. On top of homework and extracurricular activities, the ringers practice five days a week.

Theile believes that the music complements his students’ education. Studying music theory coupled with hands-on music making enforces the children’s other skills, such as math, critical thinking and problem solving.

By the time a ringer graduates, they’re not just walking out with music experience, Theile said, they’re ready to take on the world.

On Aug. 1, Theile and his students will do just that. Currently, they’re preparing to answer their call to London.

During the month of July, the ringers will meet for three two-hour rehearsals. They will practice their repertoire ¬ó which includes sacred music and popular music covers, such as songs by artists Adele and Taylor Swift ¬ó for one hour and talk for the other.

He wants to be there for them and answer any questions they might have. The kids have a real sense of anticipation, said Theile, and he can relate: When Theile was 10-years-old he performed with his bell choir at the Washington Cathedral.

Theile said his main objectives are to be a guide for the children ¬ó to pay it forward as his bell choir director once did for him ¬ó and to uplift the spirits of everybody watching. Be it rock or sacred, Theile and his ringers have the unique opportunity to broadcast their musical message on a universal stage.

Potters Fields Park was removed from their original itinerary, so Theile and the Mark Twain Ringers will perform Exhibition Road on Aug. 3, Weymouth on Aug. 4, Southwark on Aug. 7 and London Live (Victoria Park) on Aug. 7. After that, the ringers end their Olympic journey.

Though performing at Southwark is thus far the pinnacle of his career, Theile said it’s not over. He’s retiring from teaching in two years, and he’s up for exploring.

He looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Cathy ¬ó who he attributes some of his success, thanks to her patience, generosity and encouragement ¬ó and his grandchildren, Connor and Carly.

“It’s not the end of the road,” he said. “There’s so much more after I retire. It’s that fork in the road, where you look for something new.”


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