CORDOVA -- Earlier this month, music teacher Thane Thomas was recognized as Cordova's 2013 Citizen of the Year for his efforts over the past 11 years to build a music education program that inspires kids with and about music, helping them to build confidence and skills that will be life lasting.
Thomas grew up on a 1,200-acre farm in Oregon. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in music education. Following college he served in the military during the Vietnam era, stationed in Okinawa for about five years. When it came time to choose between a life-long career as an officer and another path in life, Thomas decided to return to the farm with his young family.
The farm produced several crops including apples, beets, corn - and potatoes. Thomas became involved in potato committees, potato boards, potato commissions. He was active in supporting potato research, and even opening new markets for potatoes such as India, a market that had previously been closed.
All the while, Thomas never abandoned his love of music. He got involved in the drama program at a local community college, performed in musicals, the community choir, church choir, etc. He performed occasionally as a soloist with the Boise Philharmonic, and even once with a group at Carnegie Hall.
Over the years Thomas' kids grew up and moved out on their own. His life had started a new chapter when he met Colleen and they soon were married. But he had one unfulfilled dream -- to go to Alaska and teach music.
One day on the Internet, Thomas found a posting for an opening for a music teacher in Cordova, Alaska. The description said the town had a college and a swimming pool so with Colleen's young children in tow, the couple packed up and headed north to Cordova, sight unseen.
Funny how what one person knows as a college town with swimming pool might not match up exactly what another person knows as a college town with a swimming pool. The second big surprise in their new Alaska life came when Thomas walked into the music room. He knew his predecessor had run a solid program, but as he looked around the reality was apparent: He had done it with nothing.
"The music room was empty," said Thomas. "The school district said, 'You've got about $250 to work with' so to get things started I just went out and bought an amp and some other basic things with my own money," said Thomas. Then came the biggest shock for the Oregon potato farmer.
"I walked into the grocery store and couldn't believe the prices. People were paying $2.50 for a single potato," said Thomas. "I had been getting 50 cents a pound for a 100-pound bag."
Thomas realized that he could help the town get much better prices on potatoes while also making a little money to fund the music program. So he contacted his friends and colleagues down south and lined up a potato fundraiser. Cordovans could order boxes of fresh potatoes, and eventually apples, at a significant savings and Samson pitched in to get the freight here at no cost. The result? For the past 11 years, Cordova's music program has continued to grow with the support of the annual potato fundraiser -- new instruments and new teaching technology so that every elementary student has the opportunity to participate.
Students have a lot of fun and exhibit skills mastered under Thomas' instruction - oblivious to how exceptional their knowledge is, or how rich the years ahead will be as a result.
"These students look good, are good and know they're good," said Thomas sitting in his music classroom at Mt. Eccles Elementary School. "The whole purpose of this program is to help the kids succeed. Encourage them, and help them see that everyone has a lot to offer."
One wall of the music room is now lined with guitars neatly hung in a line. Below runs a continuous desk that wraps around three sides of the room - end to end with digital keyboards neatly stacked with computers and headsets on each. There is a drum set in one corner, cellos in another, a couple of electric guitars, amplifiers, music stands stacked neatly. These days Thomas can offer students recorders, horns, pretty much whatever they are interested in trying.
Additionally, Thomas has worked with Keith Zamudio, Cordova School District Technology Director, to expand Cordova's music program through modern technology. Using a program called SmartMusic which Thomas subscribes to with potato money, he can create personalized instruction plans for students accessed online - everything from sheet music to instruction on keys and notes, to a full band that accompanies the student as they learn to bang out those classical or rock classics on the recorder, french horn or whatever instrument their heart desires. The program records the student's practice session and grades them on how well they hit the notes, keep the tempo. Thomas can listen back to the student's work and help them trouble shoot, perfect their technique and advance.
"The technology means that the kids can take the music anywhere," said Thomas referring to both where they study - at school or at home - and their potential. "And it allows me to work with every student on a personal basis that would not be possible otherwise with one music teacher."
For students that don't have computers at home, Thomas works to make them available. While he is very pleased with the success of the music education program at Mt. Eccles Elementary School, Thomas says it is sad to see students move onto Cordova High School.
"That is the hardest part," said Thomas. "I have been teaching these kids for over ten years. I see the progress and the talent and then I loose them, and there isn't a music program in the high school."
"Music builds confidence," says Thomas speaking to value of music education for all students. "Students can see what they accomplish and discover new areas to explore. It helps develop the brain and build ability to reason, math skills, memory. Music helps organize the brain too. Einstein would get out the violin when he needed to sort something out. When Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence, he would get out the violin to clear his brain."
Citizen of the Year
For his vision, personal generosity and decade-long commitment to music education in Cordova, Thomas has been recognized as Cordova's 2013 Citizen of the Year. He says there is a long list of people far more deserving than he, but he appreciates the recognition that the award brings to the school's music education program.
"This has been an incredible place to work," says Thomas who will retire and head south at the end of the school year. "The school, the parents and the community are so very supportive. It hurts to leave. I have a kindergarten class of thirty-two. I watch these kids grow, turn into beautiful successful people. It was very good to be here these past eleven years."
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