• Kathleen Holyoak

What a Surprise! (Part I)


Director of Music, Suomi College (1968 - 1971)

As I look back over my years of teaching while my husband was in graduate school (Utah and Michigan) and then when he attended dental school at Northwestern in Chicago, I never realized that the most rewarding part of my teaching career was yet to come when my position in life changed from "teacher" to "friend."


Through the years, about 20 students have stayed in contact with me and many have became my dearest friends. Some I hear from every few months and others more often than that. One student from my Suomi College choir moved to Phoenix and now lives within a few miles of me. Others have visited when they have traveled through Arizona on trips or for work conventions. It's been rewarding to follow their lives as they finished their education, started new careers, got married, became grandparents and then retired. They live all over the world but technology has kept us connected. Sadly, several have passed away but I will never forget how they have touched my life for the better. I learned so much from my students, especially about life in a world outside the bubble in Idaho where I grew up. As my Aunt Maureen would always say, "Life is too short" so make the most of every day. I will always be thankful for the students who came into my life and became friends through teaching.


As a teacher, my goal was to spark the learning process and then to step out of the way as students continued with what they had been taught.



When I began teaching in La Grange, Illinois, General Music was required for all students as part of their curriculum but had a reputation as the most boring of all classes. Chorus, however, was voluntary. Faced with over-sized classes of 40 pupils and teaching grades 5 - 8 along with eight periods each day without a free period seemed overwhelming. It was then I decided to change up the music program and do something that had never been done before in that school.

A train runs through the center of La Grange, Illinois.

When my students entered the classroom to meet their "new music teacher," I heard many complaints. However, negativity changed to excitement when they saw 40 brand new classical guitars lined up against the wall by the windows. They became even more enthusiastic when told that learning the instrument would be part of their course of study. Little did I realize the impact that would have on some, but in particular for one boy named Jeff.


Jeff was in my General Music classes for both his 7th and 8th grade years. I remember where he used to sit and how interested he seemed with every aspect of music I was teaching. He was quiet and somewhat withdrawn but it was obvious that he was a bright boy. The first day of class, I asked the students to write a one-page letter about themselves. Jeff was interested in astronomy and had built his own 6" Newtonian telescope. He also loved photography so I knew right away he was a "right brain" kid and needed some hands-on activities to motivate him. He seemed captivated when I taught lessons about Classical composers as we studied some of their famous works. Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid" was a favorite as students were taught to visualize a story associated with the music. "Danse Macabre" by Saint-Saënss was another favorite as well as "Invitation to a Dance" by Weber. I stepped way out on a limb and held my breath when I introduced the Broadway musical, "Jesus Christ, Superstar!" and was surprised how interested the students became when we studied the music in detail. Students were also introduced to electronic music and were challenged to explore and experiment with sounds, rhythms, to write songs and to create instruments from kitchen utensils. It was thrilling to see how some innovative ideas sparked their imagination and desire to learn.


After teaching at La Grange Junior High for two years, I resigned my position for the next year when I was about to become a mother the summer of 1973. To my surprise, one of my 8th grade boys, Ned G., organized a baby shower the last day of school. That was an event I will never forget!

Kathleen, 7 months pregnant.

When my husband graduated from dental school in 1975, we moved from Chicago to Arizona.

The years flew by and then about 35 years later, I received an email from Jeff asking if I was the same Mrs. Holyoak who had taught him in Junior High School? My jaw dropped to the floor and I could hardly contain my excitement! I learned that his father bought him his first guitar at age 13 and how intrigued he became by all the different sounds he could create as he began teaching himself a new instrument.


After high school and college, he became an accountant clerk and proficient in programming for an insurance company in Chicago but said, "However, I was filling a deep need to create tangible objects. Then I got the idea of building guitars." After taking a guitar building class at the Vermont Instrument School of Luthiery, he started making classical guitars.


He set up a website and what a surprise when I read that he named his first guitar after me!

The label inside shows his name as the maker and Kathleen is the registered name. This is what he wrote under the Dedication:


"This guitar is dedicated and named after my 7th and 8th grade music teacher, Kathleen Holyoak. She introduced me to classical music and the classical guitar. It was her enthusiasm for music that was so contagious that it inspired in me a life-long love of classical music and the classical guitar. Those interests have given me so much pleasure and become so very important in my life that I don’t know what I’d do without them."


Immediately, I asked if I could purchase Kathleen and Jeff arranged a trip to deliver the guitar in person. That was the first time I had seen him since his 8th grade.


Jeff holding my new guitar.

His workmanship is amazing and I am so proud to say that Jeff was one of my students so many years ago. "Kathleen" is now proudly displayed with some other instruments in my living room. It is a gentle reminder of a very talented young man I had the privilege to teach.


To be continued. . . . PART II will show the steps and process of building my guitar.




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