The Spirit of ’76: Wiley Canyon Elementary’s Class of 1976 gathers to surprise their former teacher — on his 76th birthday

Retired teacher Keenan Warner, third from left, joins former students from the 1970's in front of Wiley Canyon Elementary School as they surprise Warner for his 76th birthday in Newhall on on Saturday, 030522. Dan Watson/The Signal

Keenan Warner had no idea what he was walking into when his car pulled over in front of Wiley Canyon Elementary in Newhall last weekend. He and his wife Linda Warner next to him – who was in on the secret – were welcomed by his students from the graduating class of 1976. 

Warner, who was a teacher at Wiley Canyon Elementary, was the chief guest at his 76th surprise birthday party hosted by his students from the sixth grade of 1976. Now scattered all over, these students had flown in to celebrate one of their favorite teachers, “just an amazing person with whom we have all remained in touch over the years,” said Stephanie Holland, the mastermind behind the surprise. 

Holland, along with former classmates Mark Schindler and Mrs. Warner, had been planning the surprise for their beloved teacher for a while before their plans were upended by the pandemic. Now was their chance. 

On the cloudy Saturday, an overwhelmed Warner was greeted by hugs, wishes and tears. His former students surrounded him as he struggled to hold back his tears. With his hands on his cheeks, he stood there stunned, absorbing the moment.  

“Mr. Warner had no idea what was going on,” Holland said, as tears rolled down his cheeks. Dressed in a Dodgers jersey jacket, Warner went around hugging and meeting everyone, trying to remember their names. 

One of the first to greet him was Gerry Morey, the then-principal of Wiley Canyon. 

“One of the greatest experiences of my life was to be the principal of Wiley Canyon School. Great teacher, great kids, great parents,” she told everyone after the party moved to Vincenzo’s Pizza in Saugus, which Holland and her former classmates had decorated for the party. 

Sharing an anecdote, Morey, who celebrated her 90th birthday last year, remembered when Warner sneaked into the front cupboard of another teacher named Glenn’s classroom, coming out only to make faces as he read a story to his class. Warner enacted the story hiding behind Glenn. 

“Everyone cracked up and Glenn’s wondering what’s wrong because the story isn’t that funny.”  

The rest of the misty evening was spent eating pizza, sharing stories and laughter of years gone by. Students shared their stories of the endearing Mr. Warner and his years as their teacher. Memories from the Santa Clarita Valley of the 1970s filled the room, with the camaraderie between teachers and parents that not only instilled great values in those children, but made the SCV a beloved hometown that keeps pulling them back. 

Holland added: “He’s a very special individual, we have all remained in touch with him. He’s everybody’s favorite teacher.”

Retired teacher Keenan Warner, second from left, joins his principal, Gerry Morey, left, and former students from the 1970’s in front of Wiley Canyon Elementary School as they surprise Warner for his 76th birthday in Newhall on on Saturday, 030522. Dan Watson/The Signal

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