RICHLAND — Ben and Matt Leggett may be brothers, but they are as different as night and day.
Well, not quite.
On one hand, both are pranksters -- despite the fact they aren't kids anymore. Ben is 49 and Matt is 46. They habitually tease, mock and hammer each other with good-natured insults, as well as an occasional headlock and calling each other "the evil twin."
On the other hand, they have distinctive talents -- Matt in drama and Ben in music -- that make them popular with students and parents.
Matt has been the drama director at Hanford High in Richland for two decades, and also teaches history. He's flamboyant, brooding and charming.
Under his tutelage, Hanford High's theater program has evolved into an award-winning drama department, earning multiple awards over the last 10 years at the annual 5th Avenue Theatre High School Musical Awards, sometimes called the high school version of Broadway's Tony Awards.
Matt also brought home the best director award from this year's event for Hanford's spring musical Lucky Stiff, and a significant number of his former students are making their living as actors, directors and drama educators.
Ben is the epitome of the cool musician. He wears his hair long, sits relaxed in a chair and has an eternal smirk on his face.
He's been teaching in the Richland School District about as long as his brother, first at Tapteal Elementary and now at White Bluffs Elementary, both in West Richland.
Over the years, he's introduced a generation of students to the magic of Caribbean music by teaching them to play steeldrums.
The brothers say they never had much interest in music or theater when they were youngsters, but just sort of fell into it by accident.
But their parents, Lillian and Robert Leggett of Richland, remember it a little differently.
"Music was always there with Ben," Lillian said. "He's loved it since he was a little guy. He was always playing records and dancing all over the living room like a (rock) musician."
And Matt showed signs of being a drama director as a toddler, she added.
"Matt's been directing since he was 2 years old when he would take Ben's Johnny West doll and work out plots for it to perform," she said.
The brothers' teaching successes came about in a rather untraditional way, they said.
"I've always been a lazy person and music was always easy for me," Ben quipped. "Besides, I just get along better with kids because I've never really grown up myself. I'm the biggest goof-off in the room and that seems to keep the kids' attention."
But he couldn't do what he does without the help of so many parents, he added.
Matt wholeheartedly agrees with his brother that his students and parents make his job easier, but he's even more candid about his theater abilities.
"I don't want to give the impression that I have this directing thing all figured out because I don't," he said.
There's more to theater direction than what an audience sees, he said.
"I still have so much to learn, like how to motivate people, how to pull the full potential out of every student, how to keep some young people from falling through the cracks, how to organize this program so it runs smoother," Matt said.
And there are times when Matt is harder on himself than he is on his students when he doesn't meet his own expectations.
"I feel tired, frustrated, burned out and discouraged at my own limitations sometimes," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without my vocal director Kelly Brown and choreographer Marlie Buriak. They are amazing women who have helped make our musicals what they are. And so many parents give of their time to help with everything whether it's costumes, sets, publicity. I'm very lucky."
Any angst, however, is overshadowed by his passion to help kids find a niche.
"I believe the success of the HHS drama program is due to Matt's belief in hard work combined with a positive attitude and his ability to build a team of people who come together for that program," said Deb Donahoe, a fellow Richland teacher.
Donahoe's daughter, Heather Donahoe LaForge, has a Ph.D in theater history from University of California, San Diego and works with a theater program in Santa Cruz, Calif., as a director. She was a 1999 Hanford High graduate who learned to love theater under Ben's teaching.
"I always felt (Ben's) main goal of any production lay in the learning process," LaForge said. "He used the production experience to teach his students about theater history, the importance of dramaturgical research and the power that comes in working together as a community of theater artists. His focus on education in rehearsals is something I try to emulate as I work with my own students."
Ben's rapport with students has transformed the lives of many kids, especially after he formed the steeldrum bands -- Bram Brata and OK2Botay -- almost two decades ago. Bram Brata is made up of high school kids, and OK2Botay is middle and grade school students.
The drums became so popular with kids their parents organized the Tri-Cities Steeldrum Band Association, which offers classes to grades 4-12 taught by Ben. More information is online at www.tcsba.org.
Kathy and Dave Skaggs of West Richland were two of those parents who helped organize the association.
Their daughter, Katie, who is now 25, starting learning to play the steeldrums when she was in the fourth grade. Their son, Jeff, who is now 16, has been in the band since grade school, Kathy Skaggs said.
"We have been in steeldrums for 16 years now," she said. "Ben's been a major influence in our children's lives."
Not only has Ben taught her kids fun upbeat music, he's also been a mentor and role model through most of their childhood, she added.
"His way of teaching breaks with tradition and (his style) appeals to the kids and parents," Skaggs said. "The kids absolutely love and respect him. He's funny, talks to them on their level, and treats them as he would anybody else, and they appreciate that. He is simply a child at heart."
In essence, Skaggs said, Ben helped her and her husband raise their kids.
"We are truly blessed that Ben is a part of our children's lives and feel he has played a major role in them being the happy, well rounded, responsible people they are today."
The brothers are humbled by such praise, and say they are constantly learning that kids are so much smarter than they are.
-- Dori O'Neal: 509-582-1514; email@example.com