In nearly 38 years as a music teacher for the Baltimore city public schools, Wendell Hairston led student bands in performances before visiting dignitaries including Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and former President Bill Clinton.
No matter who the audience was, Hairston took great pleasure in seeing his students perform, colleagues say.
"When the students played, you could just see the joy and pride in his face," said Lucy J. Miller, a former principal of Dr. Nathan A. Pitts-Ashburton Elementary/Middle, one of the schools where Hairston taught.
Hairston, 60, died when his van was struck by a stolen car Saturday in Northwest Baltimore.
Edie House Foster, a spokeswoman for city schools, confirmed that Hairston was the van's driver. She said he taught in various public schools during his career, including Winston Middle, Dr. Nathan A. Pitts-Ashburton Elementary/Middle and, most recently, Southside Academy.
Besides teaching instrumental music, Hairston directed the school band and other groups as well as recording several CDs. A 2006 article in The Sun noted that Hairston was the director of a jazz group called The Winston Band, made up of students who graduated from Winston Middle School, which closed last year, and continued to perform together.
Hairston lived in the 4800 block of Olney Road, and is survived by his wife and two children, according to school representatives. Family members could not be reached Tuesday.
Colleagues remembered Hairston as a gifted educator and jazz musician who brought out the best in his students. Besides performing at school concerts and other events, they said, his bands played all over the city, including at Bethel AME Church and Lexington Market. He and his students played at Martin O'Malley's first mayoral inauguration and took trips as far away as South Carolina.
"It was difficult for people to believe that the students were middle school students," said retired Winston Middle School Principal Eldon Thomas, who led the school when Hairston taught there. "Sometimes I couldn't even believe it," she said. "He brought a lot of prestige to the school."
Thomas said Hairston welcomed "any student who wanted to participate."
He was "just the model teacher," she said. "He was exceptional. He was the most talented musician I have ever seen. He was great with the students."
Miller, the retired principal at Dr. Nathan A. Pitts-Ashburton, said Hairston was "a wonderful teacher, very creative. He absolutely loved children."
The white Mercedes that hit Hairston's van was stolen from the victim of a shooting at about 3 a.m. Saturday in the 2200 block of Liberty Heights Ave., near the Mondawmin shopping center, according to Detective Jeremy Silbert, a city police spokesman. After the crash, Hairston was taken to a local hospital, where he later died of severe head trauma, according to officials.
Police have taken a man into custody and called him a person of interest, Silbert said, but no charges have been filed and his name has not been released.