Ten finalists, nominated by past and current students, were invited Sunday to the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall for the orchestra's Festival Concert and the grand-prize presentation.
Michael Brookshire, whom Cain taught 30 years ago, nominated his former music teacher.
In his nomination essay, Brookshire wrote that aside from his father, Cain had the biggest impact on his life.
A panel of music experts from local universities helped cull the nominees. The grand prize included $1,000, a $500 gift card for music supplies, and a crystal trophy.
After Cain's name was called Sunday, his excitement quickly gave way to apprehension.
He had not prepared a speech.
"He's very unassuming and modest about the work he's done," said Kevin McAneny, principal of Wissahickon Middle School, where Cain has taught for 32 years.
That work includes directing the school marching band and two jazz bands, which vie in area competitions. Cain even began an annual tradition, McAneny said, of taking the marching band to perform at Citizens Bank Park before a Phillies game.
Family of musicians
Music has always been a staple of Cain's life, but when young, he never imagined a teaching career.
Growing up in a family of musicians in Lime Ridge, Pa., Cain said, he had no choice but to follow in his relatives' footsteps. His grandfather conducted the community band, in which both his parents played clarinet.
"It was a great way to grow up," said Cain, who added that in Lime Ridge he was known as "Jack's boy" or "Paul's grandson."
Cain began playing hand-me-down clarinets in the fourth grade and later developed a passion for percussion instruments, a break from family tradition.
His family moved to the Philadelphia area while Cain was still in elementary school.
After graduating from Hatboro-Horsham High School, Cain spent 10 years performing on the road before receiving a degree in music from Temple University. He first went to Wissahickon Middle School as a long-term substitute teacher.
Now, Cain works with students whose parents he once taught.
"I've always been able to relate to them," Cain said of the middle-school students he teaches. "I'm 62 going on 12."
Cain said he loves to see the impact music education can have on a person's life. He remembered one student's getting off the bus after a competition and saying, "Mr. Cain, I'm going to be a band director just like you."
And some former students have become music teachers, band directors, and professional musicians. But Cain has also had an effect on those who were not so musically inclined.
Brookshire, who nominated his former teacher, is now a vice president at TD Bank, Cain said, and uses the drums as stress-relief after a long day at work.
Cain said he appreciates the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra's recognition of music educators.
Citing statistics connecting music education with better academic performance, Cain said: "After I retire, I might want to crusade to keep music in schools."
'Get well soon'
Cain's energy and enthusiasm do not appear to be waning. He lives in Willow Grove with his wife, whom he met through work with a local theater 13 "lucky" years ago.
And Cain, after his brief sabbatical this winter, is excited to be back in the music room.
Even when he was in the hospital, his students did not forget him. He received piles of "get well soon" letters.
When Cain was finally well enough to return to school for the Thursday night jazz band rehearsals, one sixth grader was so excited to see him, she dropped her saxophone, luckily still in its case, and ran to greet him.
Cain said, "She gave me a big hug, saying, 'You have to go back to school.' "
Here are the other finalists for the 2014 Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Ovation Award:
Derek Barnes, Merion.
Thomas Elliott, Narberth.
Elizabeth Kaderabek, Bala Cynwyd.
Anthony Prisk, Philadelphia.
Angela Riggs, Flourtown.
Kimberly Rowe, Philadelphia.
Shelley Beard Schleigh, Wilmington.
Byrnina Socolofsky, Glassboro.