They called their dad “Superman.”
“As kids, we love our parents unconditionally,” says Francis Rios, 38, recalling a childhood spent laying underneath his father’s two grand pianos, listening to him play. “We only see their brilliance when we get older. And then when they pass on, we really see their brilliance. It’s kind of messed up, how that works.”
Francis, Teresa, 29, and Augustina Rios, 23, own Westminster Arts Academy, founded by their late father, Robert Rios.
Earlier this month, they received the Music Academy Success trade association’s 2019 National Music School of the Year award, besting nine finalists across the country. In the last several years, they’ve grown the school from 150 students to 900.
“They have not only put Westminster, Calif., on the national music school map,” says Marty Fort, the director of South Carolina’s Columbia Arts Academy and founder of the Music Academy Success. “They are [also] leading the arts in their community.”
Robert’s business, known for years as Rios Piano Centers, had locations in Orange, Irvine, Mission Viejo, Huntington Beach, Anaheim and Westminster.
“He was such an explosive entrepreneur,” says Francis. “He loved it. He was on fire, full speed ahead. I remember him saying, ‘I just got another unit.’ ‘I got another unit.’ Wow, wow, wow, wow!”
As a kid, Robert, a third-generation Mexican American, offered to mow his neighbor’s lawn in exchange for piano lessons. By 16, he started teaching piano. In the ‘70s, he was one of the early teachers at Plaza de la Raza, which still provides affordable arts education to lower-income residents in East Los Angeles.
When he was in his mid-20s, a young woman named Thuy, a refugee from Vietnam, signed up for his adult evening classes at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Lincoln Heights district near downtown L.A.
“She started bringing him egg rolls,” says Francis. “He was hooked. One thing led to another. They ended up getting married. That’s our mom.”
The Rios siblings, who include older sister Tinh, span 19 years. They can trace the stages of their father’s piano school based on the ways their parents asked (perhaps coerced, they joke) them to help out as children.
“We were folding recital programs in our cribs,” Francis says.
Teresa and Augustina nod, laughing. They still fold the Westminster Arts Academy recital programs themselves. Now they make Francis’ teenage daughter help.
At age 8, Francis remembers being forced to suit up and emcee recitals. This was when piano lessons were taught out of their home in Sierra Madre and recitals took place at the Pasadena Public Library.
Once Francis finished school, it was Teresa’s turn.
Teresa remembers, at age 10, her father giving her a stack of papers with phone numbers to call.
“He’d write out a script for me,” she says. “Like ‘Hi, my name is Teresa. We were wondering when you wanted to come back for lessons.’ ... People would be like, ‘How old are you?’ And I’d think, Do I lie?”
By then, they had moved to Westminster, because Thuy wanted to be closer to the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon.
She had learned the art of “ikebana” flower arranging, and the family opened Kamala Flowers and Music. On one side of a glass wall was a retail flower shop and on the other was a piano school.
“I’d do photo shoots there with Teresa,” says Augustina. “I was 4, and that’s where I got this burn mark — from the hot glue gun in the flower shop.”
“We both have flower shop scars,” says Teresa, laughing.
By the time Augustina, the youngest, was 7, the family received some grave news.
Augustina, who Robert called his “little secretary,” remembers playing with a childhood friend underneath one of her father’s grand pianos, when the boy asked her a confusing question.
“He asked, ‘Why is your dad walking around with a cane?’ “ Augustina remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ “
The father of one of their music students was a doctor, and when he learned about Robert’s symptoms, he told him to immediately come into his office.
Robert had a life-threatening tumor on the top of his spine. He survived a nine-hour surgery to remove it, but was diagnosed with Stage 4 multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow, and given six months to live.
Robert had other plans. He refused chemo, opting to take his chances with all-natural remedies. He lived for nine more years.
“The kitchen was orange because mom was juicing so many carrots,“ says Francis. “He had two giant bags of supplements.”
Rios, in addition to owning piano businesses, held a doctorate in theology. In the ‘90s, he hosted two local radio programs, “Latin Classics” and “Universal Spirituality.” He taught his kids not to be afraid of death and the afterlife — and that suffering was good for the soul.
Seven years later, he was back in the hospital, and doctors told the family to say their final goodbyes.
“He didn’t believe he was going to pass away,” says Augustina. “He thought we were stupid. ‘How dare you think I’m going to pass away.’ “
“And then he came back with a vengeance,” says Francis.
In his final year and a half, they took more family vacations. Robert recorded an album of classical piano. He attended his mother’s funeral. He took Thuy to Las Vegas for their final annual “three days of romance” — Thuy’s birthday was Dec. 28, their anniversary was Dec. 29, and Robert’s birthday was Dec. 30.
He made it to Mother’s Day 2013, before going back to the hospital.
“My dad loved Hollywood, and it was like he planned this incredibly dramatic exit,” says Francis, describing eight painful hours that ended with a numbing silence.
“The crazy thing was that right at that moment, I felt like this peace came over the room,” says Francis. “It was so strange. It was like, this is what he’s been preparing us for.“
Hours after he died, they went to go see the midnight premiere of “Man of Steel,” as a family.
“Because that’s what we called him,” says Teresa.
“We were in shock,” says Francis. “All we knew was that we had to go see ‘Superman’ and show him that we’ll be OK.”
Thuy, Teresa and Augustina turned their focus back to the family business, which they held together as Robert’s health declined.
“They instinctively wanted to carry on what my father did, because our love for our dad is so strong,” says Francis. “‘Let’s do this for him.’ But how?”
Francis, who by then had developed management skills working at manufacturing company, returned to help. Slowly and steadily, they got their business back on track.
A few years ago, Francis mustered the courage to tell Thuy, “Mom, let us take care of this,” and now he, Teresa and Augustina are equal business partners.
Their 30 teachers teach piano, guitar, flute, violin, drums, saxophone, ukelele, accordion and other instruments. And as they began to add voice, dance and arts classes, they changed their name to Westminster Arts Academy.
Like their father, they want to dive into making their music school the best it can be.
“We’re extra,” says Francis, laughing, referring to the massage chairs he bought for parents to use while they’re waiting for their kids’ lessons to finish. “It’s stressful out there. We want our families to be happy. We want parents to fight over who gets to bring their kid to music class.”
This year, in addition to their regular spring and winter recitals, they hosted formal concert showcase at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster for their top students and their teachers — complete with a program mocked up like a Broadway Playbill, a red carpet step-and-repeat, and an on-camera host and video crew treating their students like stars.
At the same time, they continue the community service their father valued with weekly performances at the senior center. And last year, they were able to give out Bob Rios scholarships for the first time.
Teresa remembers her father training her and Augustina to teach his group piano lessons when they were barely teenagers. She used to hate it. All she wanted to do was act and dance.
“But he would say, ‘One day, you’re going to love teaching,’ “ she says. “And he was right. Now, it’s my number one favorite thing in the world.”
“The most fulfilling part of this is seeing pride in the mom and dads’ faces,” says Francis. “I know that [feeling] as a father. To see that over and over and over with hundreds of families — oh my God, it gives me so much joy. And to be able to carry on my father’s spirit and mission. That’s what it’s all about.”