They Call Him “Sir,” a Tribute to Southern Utah Teacher Russ Saxton
Waking up on a hot summer morning in June of 2010, Nathan Myers received jaw dropping news about what musical his high school was producing in the Fall. Dixie High School would become one of the first high schools in the United States to produce Phantom of the Opera. This dream come true for Myers was all thanks to the tenacity and vision of his teacher and mentor: Russ Saxton.
Saxton taught theater at Dixie High for over 32 years before retiring in 2016. His love for theater and education was ever present through his entire tenure. The auditorium he used for his shows at the high school could hold up to 800 people, and most of the time, especially in his last ten years, he would manage to fill every single seat.
Every drama student at Dixie High knew that if they worked with Saxton, they would become a part of a production as close to Broadway quality as a high school could attain. This level of respect earned Saxton a simple nickname that stuck with him throughout his career.
Every member of the drama club at Dixie High looked up to their sir with admiration and respect, and he returned the favor and then some. Each of his musicals had scale and attention to detail unheard of in Southern Utah, let alone high schools.
Saxton said, “So, as I got into the last 10 years of my career, I had created a big elephant. And I had to figure out how to continue to feed it, but I wasn't trying to feed it to get bigger, bigger, and bigger, I was trying to sustain it.”
A lot of the help Saxton received didn’t just come from the students, it came from the parents as well. Parents were often tasked by Saxton to make their children shine on the stage by helping with sets, costumes, and other technical elements.
This led Saxton to meeting one of his greatest allies in the mid 2000s. Marlo Rawlings is a professional costumer and designer who just so happened to have a daughter in one of Saxton's shows. She decided to come into one of Dixie’s tech days, which is when both students and parents alike would take a weekend to build some of the most difficult set pieces and costumes.
Marlo walks into the bustle of tech day and mentions to Saxton that she is a professional designer, and her husband is a contractor. She says she has two hours as she asks what she could do to help.
Rawlings said, “The first thing he said was, I need you to paint a foot wide mural. 16 feet tall on each side that comes down to the middle and has a castle. I'd like a lake over here, with trees and a forest. And I'm like, I told you I had two hours.”
Those two hours turned into the better part of a decade. Marlo would help Saxton even when none of her kids were involved.
This all leads to the spring of 2010.
Saxton would usually announce the next year’s show at the annual drama banquet, but that year, he didn’t have anything to announce yet. He knew what was on the horizon, but he didn’t want to give anyone false hope until he was absolutely sure.
Sure enough, the day came in June of 2010 when he announced that “Phantom of the Opera” was the fall musical for the school year. The students had such a hard time believing it that Saxton made a follow up post on Facebook saying that this was real, and to prepare for the challenges ahead.
Nathan Myers was about to start his junior year at Dixie when he found out about the fall musical. He knew he had to train himself if he was to audition for the role of the Phantom.
Auditions came, and Nathan Myers became one of the first high school students to don the mask of the Phantom.
Myers said, “That was the first theater experience that really influenced me and led me to make the decision that I wanted theater to be a part of my career in some way.”
Myers also believes Saxton to be at the forefront of technical theater scholars in St. George.
Myers said, “You know, everyone knows he's brilliant. Everyone knows he's a technical wizard. I would say in this current time, I'd say he's probably the most underappreciated technician we have in St. George, Utah. His knowledge of the technical aspect in the theater world is on another level.”
Saxton’s last show for Dixie High School would be “Mary Poppins”, which both him and Marlo would come to say was one of hardest, but rewarding, shows they ever did.
As a last hurrah not just from Saxton, but from the wide variety of students that had “Sir” as a teacher. Students from previous years ranging from 1995 to 2008 came back to participate in a special performance of Mary Poppins with the alumni filling in for certain roles.
After the show, Saxton was greeted by hundreds of students throughout his career who came to support his final endeavor as the drama teacher of Dixie High School.
Without batting an eye, every student that walked into that reunion didn’t address him as Russ, or Mr. Saxton, but “Sir”.
While Saxton is not teaching at Dixie High anymore, he continues to support new educators in theater by teaching them the ropes of how to give students the love and care they need.
After all these years after retirement, Saxton goes about his business and will run into his old students on a regular basis. They may have families and careers of their own now, but one thing never changes when his old students see Russ Saxton.
“It’s good to see you Sir.” I should know, I was one of them.
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Gallery Credit: The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints