Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Susan Cook Northway

Susan Anne Cook Northway was my vocal music teacher in high school. She arrived the first day of my freshman year at Big Piney High School, along with her husband, Ernie Northway, who taught instrumental music, band and stageband.

Susan Cook Northway.

In addition to leading the concert choir, Susan Northway taught art, and had a great talent for it. She had a sister who was a professional artist, and Susan's own talents in that department were apparent. As I did with her husband, I learned many things from Susan Northway, and particularly honed my skills in music appreciation and listening. When I wasn't singing in the high school choir, groups or solos, I was accompanying them. I still have a little statuette on my piano in Wisconsin that says "Frederick Chopin Piano Award," an award she dubiously bestowed upon me in high school in the absence of any great talent on that score. My piano skills were serviceable, nothing more, but I enjoyed my time at a keyboard, as I enjoyed singing.

I remember well the day she said to me that I was clearly a generalist and not a specialist, sort of good at a number of things but not particularly excelling in any of them. It was true my interests were broad and the energy and tunnel vision required to single in on one of them was lacking. But there are many things if I could go back and repeat those years in high school now I would do differently with the three decades of hindsight.

I got to know Susan Northway outside the classroom particularly when she had her first child, and I babysat for them briefly after my high school graduation. They lived in the "teacherages" then, school district supplied housing across from the high school, and I still remember her list of phone numbers for Poison Control near the telephone, sitting on her front stoop, and visiting with her in her livingroom as she explained to me about liturgical calendars. (Susan and Ernie had come to Big Piney as Unitarians from Iowa, not particularly religious that I could detect, but as time progressed she seemed increasingly involved with the local Episcopal Church and its trappings, and my only introduction to liturgy in that sense was being included with other high school choir members in participation in its midnight service on Christmas Eve.)

I also remember, the summer after my freshman year of college, being asked by her to model for a drawing class that was doing live modeling near Pinedale. I was supposed to wear a leotard, I was told, so I showed up in the only leotard I had--a black one, only to be told later that it should have been flesh colored. If there were flesh colored leotards to be had in all the state of Wyoming at the time, it would be news to me. In any case, my picture was sketched by several there, and my modesty was intact.

Susan and Ernie Northway later moved to Salt Lake City, where they taught in the local schools and raised a family.

She is now Director of the Office of Religious Education for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, after several years of teaching religion in two local Catholic high schools.

My first introduction to liturgical music came at the hands of Susan Northway in high school choir, although I didn't realize or fully appreciate it at the time, a Unitarian from Iowa in her late 20's with long red hair, braces, short skirts and fishnet stockings who clearly had an aptitude for the divine, as I did, beyond the great appeal of smells and bells.

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