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Kelly Smith, Published April 12 2009

All that jazz: Mike Radniecki calls curtain on Pizzazz

As winter melts into spring, dozens – if not hundreds – of former Fargo South High School students will come from across the country to honor the music teacher they never forgot.

Mike Radniecki – better known as Mr. Rad – didn’t just teach them music. He changed their lives.

“It’s just an unbelievable experience,” said 44-year-old Brian Hayer, who danced and sang in Pizzazz three decades ago. “For 32 years, he’s affected a lot of kids.”

As his 61st birthday approaches, Radniecki says it’s time he retires.

“It’s a great kick coming to work every day,” he said after wrapping up a class recently. “It will be really hard to let go. It’s just time for a change.”

And with that comes the end of Pizzazz, the show choir he started when he began teaching at Fargo South 32 years ago.

Since then, nearly 400 Pizzazz students and an estimated 3,000 students have passed through South’s choir room with Radniecki at the helm.

“He thinks the world of these kids, and I do, too,” wife Mary said, choking up. “It’s obviously a passion, and he just really gives his heart and soul to it.”

That positive influence has carried throughout Hayer’s life, he said.

So much so that he invited his high school choir teacher and wife to his wedding nearly 20 years ago. Now, his son, Rudy, a junior at Fargo South, is one of the 18 students who beat out 50 to 60 others to be in Radniecki’s final class.

“It’s an honor to be … the last,” senior Bailey Haseltine said at a recent Pizzazz class.

She and her fellow Pizzazz performers burst into song while “Rad” played the piano with his wife at his side.

“I love this piece,” Mary, 52, said, patting her leg to the music.

She often stops by her husband’s class after teaching music at nearby Lewis and Clark Elementary.

It’s clear that the career Radniecki forged has included his wife of 25 years every step of the way.

When he lists off students he remembers from over the years, Mary nods with recognition and helps finish his sentences. She’s even crafting a scrapbook filled with photos documenting every Pizzazz class since his first in 1977.

“In this area, (show choirs are) very rare,” she said. “He’s very respected for his skills with this across the country.”

Although he teaches other choirs, it’s the show choir class that became much more than a class.

“It feels like a family,” said Pizzazz singer and junior Keshia Kay Anderson. “It’s not going to be the same at all (next year).”

In fact, the program Radniecki built – from dance moves he choreographed to the logo and signature red costumes – will change when a new director takes over the show choir class and makes it his or her own.

But the real loss to the 375 Pizzazz alumni and 18 current students is the couple behind Pizzazz.

“They’re really a part of our lives,” senior Nick Fink said.

From daily Pizzazz classes, 20 to 40 shows a year and trips across the country for performances, the couple has watched these teens grow both as singers and young adults.

“He’s like a dad, a second family,” Haseltine added. “I’m going to miss him. I’m going to cry my eyes out.”

That’s why Radniecki has already started packing, trying to avoid tearful moments as he braces for the June day he walks out of South for good.

“That day will probably be one of the most emotional ones,” he said of 39 years of teaching. “It really will be the end.”

Or a beginning.

Mary will retire from her music teaching career next year, and the couple plans to move to their lake cabin near Detroit Lakes and visit their two grown children more.

“Letting go is hard … when you’re like family,” Mary said. “They’re very important people in our lives.”

And to hundreds of former students, Mr. Rad will be just as unforgettable.

“He was my favorite teacher and became a close friend,” Hayer said. “His positive influence on me has carried throughout my life.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515