Marlene Woodward-Cooper remembers reading a newspaper article in the late 1960s about a new Christian college that was starting in West Palm Beach.
Two years later Woodward-Cooper, then a church pianist and piano tutor, joined the music faculty of the newly formed Palm Beach Atlantic College.
Now in her 41st year of teaching, Woodward-Cooper is Palm Beach Atlantic University's longest serving faculty member, having worked under all seven presidents. In 1992, she received the University's Award for Outstanding Teaching, and last August she received its 40-year service award.
Whenever she thinks of retiring, her piano students convince her to stay a few more years until they graduate, she said.
"I fall in love with my students," she said. "I can't leave them."
And she shows no signs of slowing down, either as an instructor or as a composer. In February, audiences will hear the premiere of Woodward-Cooper's newest composition for two pianos and a string orchestra titled Rayos de Esperanza, which translates to "rays of hope."
The international piano duo Gastesi-Bezerra will debut Rayos de Esperanza during the Feb. 11 concert in PBA's DeSantis Family Chapel. The duo has performed several of Woodward-Cooper's original works in recent years in countries like France, Serbia, Spain and Brazil and at universities and festivals across the United States.
"Her music is very well written and very expressive," said Marcio Bezerra, who makes up half of the duo. "It always receives good comments from the audience."
Woodward-Cooper, formerly Marlene Sadlon, began playing the piano and composing as a child in Wantagh, N.Y., with guidance from her father, a pianist. At age 12, she attended Juilliard School of Music for a summer. Later, she earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Manhattan School of Music.
She moved to Florida, where she and her husband raised two sons and she began playing for the Palm Beach Opera. She also played the organ and piano in churches and taught privately. Also, her exceptional sight-reading abilities landed her a number of last-minute performance jobs.
Stan Doyle, who started PBA's music department, was familiar with Woodward-Cooper's sight-reading skills, as well as her educational background in both piano performance and music education. He invited her to join the faculty in April 1970. She began teaching that fall.
Woodward-Cooper has impacted many people throughout the history of PBA, said Dr. Lloyd Mims, dean of the School of Music and Fine Arts. "Her loving, caring attitude has been a blessing to so many students while at the same time her high standards of professionalism have spurred so many students on to great musical endeavors," Dr. Mims said.
In addition, her piano tutelage of entrepreneur John J. Rinker spurred Rinker and his wife, Sheila, to provide the lead gift in building the music building on campus.
When Vera Lea Rinker Hall was dedicated in 2002 as the new home of the School of Music and Fine Arts, Woodward-Cooper received a ceremonial key to the building from Rinker.
While she is always serious in her approach to music, Woodward-Cooper often uses humor to lighten the mood in the classroom. "I can laugh at myself, and I laugh at my students and they laugh with me," she said.
Off campus, Woodward-Cooper was a founding member of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Society, and she served as pianist and organist for the First Christian Church, Lakeside United Methodist Church, Lakeside Presbyterian Church and Our Savior Lutheran Church.
Though she could have traveled abroad as a performer, she doesn't feel she has missed anything. She said she is able to play for audiences here as often as she wants.
Meanwhile, through performers like Gastesi-Bezerra, her music is being heard around the world.
"I can compose music anywhere," she said. "I get my desire for performance out of my system when I want to. I have the best of all worlds."