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Mary Epperson was considered to be the “creative center of Homer,” Alaska. She loved music, the arts and life-long learning and had a passion to share this love with others. She was the inspiration for, and the architect of the arts community of Homer and the southern Kenai Peninsula. Perhaps most widely known as an outstanding piano teacher, she gave private lessons to generations of children, and adults, over a sixty-year teaching career. In the 1980’s Epperson inspired and created the key institutions for the arts community to grow and to flourish. And perhaps her proudest achievement was that after years of dedicated advocacy she successfully convinced the University of Alaska to establish Kachemak Bay Campus as a “real” college in Homer with facilities and programs. Epperson’s influence was summarized by one observer as “…the ripple effects from her life will continue to shape our community for decades if not centuries…”(1)
Not much is known about Epperson’s early life. She and a sister were born of Mexican immigrant parents in Los Angles, CA. After completing high school she worked as a bookkeeper and during the early WW II years she worked in a factory where she met Jack Epperson, the man she married in 1942. Jack decided the family should move to Alaska which they did with their two children, Terry and Dean, in 1954.
We do know of one major influence in her early years: her father loved music and filled the house with sound. They listened to the radio together and at a very early age he observed that she could “play by ear”, having the ability to pick out the notes on a piano of a tune she heard him whistle or heard on the radio. Recognizing that she had this talent, he insisted that she be given piano lessons, starting at an early age. Her daughter Terry, has commented that once her mother was introduced to the piano, playing and later teaching others to play became Epperson’s life-long passion and love.
The early years in Alaska were difficult. They first filed for a homestead in Happy Valley, located between Ninilchik and Anchor Point, living in a one-room cabin without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing or a piano which had been left in Los Angeles. Also, it was a two-mile walk to the road where her daughter could catch the school bus. Deciding that it would be too difficult to spend another winter in that cabin they filed for a new homesite in Ninilchik, choosing a site opposite the school. Again, the cabin Jack built lacked running water and indoor plumbing, but it did have electricity and the school had a piano. Epperson immediately started giving piano lessons at the school and at pupils’ homes. She also became a substitute teacher and taught singing and gave accordion and guitar lessons. They next homesteaded at a site outside of Anchor Point, now known as Epperson Knob, where Jack built their cabin and started a cattle ranch. While this cabin was larger, there was no road to it. This required Epperson to travel to her pupils’ houses for their piano lessons. Finally, they decided they needed to find “real” jobs to earn money and moved to Homer.
Epperson served as treasurer/clerk of the City of Homer for eighteen years. She retired in 1981 and devoted full time to teaching piano, volunteering and advancing the arts and education. She acquired a small building in the downtown area, fixed it up to be her music studio and named it Etude Studio. It quickly became the cultural hub of Homer where people could “hang out”, find tickets, learn what was happening in the arts and, of course, take music lessons. A newcomer to the Etude Studio would immediately be quizzed by Epperson to ascertain what musical instruments he or she played in the hopes of recruiting new talent for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.
Her community activism in the arts started In the 1980’s when she founded the Homer Council on the Arts, serving on its board of directors as president and treasurer for many years. Epperson founded and organized the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, serving as president of the board and for thirty years was its bookkeeper. In 1991, she was one of the primary founding trustees of the Homer Community Foundation. She supported other art organizations as well, including the community band, Inlet Winds, and the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club. She sold tickets every summer in support of the Pier One theatre productions.
In addition to her love of the arts, Epperson was deeply interested in opportunities for securing life-long learning opportunities and higher education. She believed in learning for learning’s sake. Her daughter observed that once she learned something Epperson felt compelled to share it with others. She served on the Campus Advisory Board of he Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska, for thirty years, many as chair. She campaigned extensively and with dedication for “real” college campus facilities to be located in Homer and lobbied for many of the certificate and degree programs and services now offered to students and the community. In 2011 the Board of Regents of the University of Alaska recognized Epperson’s dedicated and successful effort in championing the college and awarded her the Meritorious Service Award. The citation read in part “demonstrated profound, unwavering commitment to developing our local campus of the University of Alaska”. At the awards ceremony, KBC Director Carol Swartz declared: “While she may be small in stature, she has been a giant when it comes to making the needs of KBC known.” (2)
Epperson received many honors for her lasting contributions which helped build and promote Homer’s arts and educational institutions. She received the Governor’s Award for the Arts, 1988; was declared Homer’s Citizen of the Year, 2004; Homer’s Mayor and City Council issued a Proclamation in 2010, declaring June 6th, Mary’s birthday, as “Mary Epperson Day” and this municipal proclamation has been reissued multiple times. In her honor, the Campus Advisory Board created the “Mary Epperson Campus Support and Scholarship Fund”. This endowed fund was successfully funded and awarded its first three scholarships in 2017.
What were the personality traits, leadership and teaching skills this remarkable woman possessed to enable a former homesteader and music lover to make such lasting impacts on her community and so many individuals ? First off, she loved people and in turn people loved her, sensing a genuine concern. Epperson was very proud of her students and respected everyone’s contributions. She was generous, kind, very humble, modest and did not need, and did not take, credit for her accomplishments. She was determined, would follow through and knew how to connect and collaborate with others. As an intuitive person, she was always able to find, and convince, an appropriate person to do something. When that certain something was completed she would say: “I was just the pusher”. (3)
She was a natural teacher, using patience and praise, and knowing when and how to give extra attention to a young person when needed, whether pertaining to life or a music lesson. As one former student commented: “Her sessions were not dry drills or lesson but infusions of self esteem”.(4) In the book entitled “The Talent Code: Greatness is Not Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How”, author Daniel Coyle, declared Mary Epperson to be a “master teacher”.
In summarizing Mary’s enormous personal and community influence, Shannyn Moore, a well-known commentator and radio host from the area, stated: “I can’t image Homer or myself without her guidance.” (5)
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/osriR69zHLg
Cline, Dorthy Roberts. Mary’s Gift Alaska’s Remarkable Mary Epperson.
Glen Erin Press, 2016.
Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness is Not Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Bantam, 2009.
Tony Lewis and Clark Fair. Keeping the Fire Burning; 50-Year History of Kenai Peninsula College (2)
Personal Conversations with Dean Epperson and Terry Harrington, February, 2018.
Homer News, http://www.homenews.com:
Local News, April 14, 2016, Michael Armstrong, “Homer’s ‘creative heart’ dies”.
Homer Town Crier, Obituary, April 21, 2016.
Alaska Dispatch News, http://www.adn.com:
Carey Restino, April 15, 2016, “Devotion, Passion for Life made Epperson a mentor”, commentary first printed in the Arctic Sounder.
Mike Dunham, April 15, 2016, “Coda: Mary Epperson”. (4)
Shannyn Moore, April 17, 2016, “Homer and Alaska lose one of their best in beloved inspiration Mary Epperson”. (5)