This week a wonderful woman in my community passed away at the ripe old age of 93. Mary Epperson was one of those people everyone loved -- had a 1,000-watt smile and a genuine handshake that lingered.
She and her husband were homesteaders in the hills above town so long ago there's a knob named after her. She taught piano as long as anyone around here can remember, and her studio was wallpapered with photos of her former students. She inspired many to pursue a career in music, but encouraged it more as a passion than a means of making a living. She helped start orchestras, an arts council, the local college and an endowment fund. She has been honored with degrees, proclamations, awards and even a day named after her. She was, as one person noted, a doer.
But here's the interesting thing. Most of the people I talked to after she passed said they considered her a mentor, like a mother or at least a family member, a very important person in their lives and in the community. And yet, almost no one knew anything about her years before she came to Alaska.
How did she develop her love of music? No one knew many details. What was her upbringing like? Not many facts there. In fact, few people even knew what color her hair was before it turned white. For the record, it was blazing red.
The thing about this individual is that even though she was an incredibly important and influential person to our community, none of it was about her. She loved to see people enjoying the arts — that was her entire motivation. No desire for recognition. No effort to build herself up. No ego. In fact, all the work she did was entirely and completely about helping others. No joke.
Once in a while you run into a person like that and you realize immediately they are cut from entirely different cloth than the rest of us needy folks. While many may be generous in their lives, few do it completely devoid of personal ambition or wants. But the impact of those who do manage to achieve that is always profound.
Her music students responded, friends said, because when they walked in that room, they felt completely loved, supported and encouraged by this woman. She wasn't attached to them becoming superstars, but she did want them to do their best. But she encouraged and corrected in such a way that it was all positive.
When you think about the impact you want to have on the world, you may first turn to your children, or your profession, or your art, hoping one of those avenues might become fruitful enough to leave a lasting impression after we are gone.
But people like Mary do so much more than that. They make individual impressions on each and every person they meet just by their way of interacting, their positivity and their ability to love freely. As one person said, the ripple effects from her life will continue to shape our community for decades if not centuries, and she was able to achieve that not by things she created herself but by encouraging and inspiring others to pursue and realize their dreams.
As we move through the world, there's a lot we can learn from someone like that. Take a day and see if you can adjust the way you interact with others, just for that 24-hour period. Be intentional about how you interact with the barista in the coffee shop and the grocery store clerk. Think about how you can encourage your children more. Be loving to your friends and family. Watch how people react. At the end of the day, take stock.
How different did it feel, moving through the day with the core desire to spread happiness and positivity among your fellow humans? Chances are good it felt pretty incredible. So incredible, you might even want to try it again the next day, too.
That's what Mary did every day of her life, even in her final hours. She brought people together and bonded them with a feeling of happiness and positivity. She was able to build people up because she didn't need anything -- no recognition, no pats on the back, no gold stars. In the end, that quality had more of an impact than money or star-studded talent. With an attitude like that, you really can change the world around you.
Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.
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