In a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad, Mary Ellen Yost is a throwback to a simpler time.
She is a piano teacher.
For almost a half century, since landing that first teaching job at a Tampa, Fla., high school in 1967, and then taking on that first private student in Klamath Falls in 1968, Yost has taught so many that she lost count long ago.
“I honestly don’t know,” she says, when asked how many.
Rows of photo books sit on a table in the studio of her south Eugene home, in chronological order by school year.
“Those books are very special to me,” says Yost, with more than a trace of the Southern accent she grew up with in Central Florida. She and husband Rick Yost — a fellow Florida State University graduate who grew up in Corvallis — moved to Klamath Falls in 1968 when both got jobs teaching music in the school district.
She shows you a small, framed black-and-white photograph taken circa 1950 in her hometown of Auburndale, Fla. It’s her, age 5, and her first piano teacher, a woman named Nettie Allen.
Because of this old photo, Yost, now 70 and set to retire this spring after 49 years of teaching, always takes a photograph of each of her students the first time they sit down at her piano.
Her own mother, Mattie Sue Cooper, took that photo of her and Allen after her first lesson.
Yost’s grandparents let Allen live with them rent-free when Yost’s mother was a child, in exchange for providing Mattie Sue and her older sister piano lessons. Allen later taught Yost, whose nickname growing up was Mickie. (“Only my second-grade teacher called me Mary Ellen.”)
Generations of learning
Yost, who also teaches voice and guitar, was the music teacher at Creslane Elementary School in Creswell from 1971 to 2001.
Yost charges $17 per half-hour of instruction, a bit more than the $2.50 she charged that first student in Klamath Falls. However, it’s about the same amount when accounting for 47 years of inflation.
Today, some of her private students are the sons and daughters of those she taught at Creslane.
“She’s a really good teacher, because she really pushes you to be a better player and singer,” says Cassidy Perkins, 10, a student at Pleasant Hill Elementary School who lives across the street from Yost in a neighborhood south of Dillard Road, just north of Creswell.
“She sometimes pushes you past your limit, which I think is a really good thing, because if you’re not pushed past your limit, how will you learn?” says Cassidy, right before her Wednesday afternoon lesson.
Yost taught Perkins’ father, Chad Perkins, when he was a student at Creslane.
On Monday afternoon, student Leona Marquess, a Creslane fifth-grader, spent part of her 11th birthday taking her lesson with Yost. Leona’s grandmother Debra Marquess also is a Yost student, and Yost taught Leona’s father (Debra’s son), Von, at Creslane.
Both Cassidy and Leona will take part in the Play-a-thon at Barnes & Noble on Saturday and Sunday, an annual event sponsored by the Oregon Music Teachers Association, of which Yost has been a member since the 1980s.
Yost will lead several of her students through 20-minute segments, singing and playing mostly Christmas songs on the piano. The event is a fundraiser for OMTA.
Joanna Gong, a fourth-grader at Creslane who was practicing “Jingle Bells” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” during her Wednesday lesson, will be there, too.
Her older brother Jacky, a sophomore at Marist High School, wishes Yost would reconsider her retirement.
“My son is very upset, because he’s got two more years (of high school),” the siblings’ mother, Jenny Gong, says good-naturedly while waiting for Joanna’s lesson to end.
Jacky Gong also will perform during this weekend’s Play-a-thon.
“Something I could do”
Rick Yost, 71, grew up in Corvallis and is a self-employed financial adviser who has no intention of retiring, his wife says.
After a year in Klamath Falls, the couple moved to Newport for a few months, where Mary Ellen Yost taught music for the Toledo School District.
During the Vietnam War, the couple lived in California, where Rick Yost was stationed for his stint in the U.S. Army.
In 1971 they moved to Creswell. A trumpet player who also taught music for years, Rick Yost pursued his master’s in music at the University of Oregon while she worked at Creslane Elementary.
They moved to Eugene in 1975, but Mary Ellen Yost would stay at Creslane for another 26 years, starting a choir in the 1990s and taking students all over the state to perform.
Both of the couple’s children, South Eugene High School graduates Heidi Yost-Marquardt and Edward Yost, were taught piano by their mother.
Yost-Marquardt (also a Florida State music major and graduate) is now a voice and piano teacher in Southern California, while Edward is a chemical researcher for a San Francisco pharmaceutical company.
Looking back on it all, Yost says she knew as early as the seventh grade in Auburndale, a small town about 45 miles east of Tampa, that she wanted to teach music for a living.
She was playing the piano in church by the time she was 12. She studied the organ in high school. In addition to piano, she studied the harp in college. With just nine months of training, she was good enough to fill in for her instructor as the second harpist during a 1966 performance with the famed London Symphony Orchestra during a Daytona Beach, Fla., concert.
“I always felt very fortunate that my parents were willing to (pay for my) lessons,” Yost says.
Her father, Steve Cooper, was a grocery store owner, rancher and even served a term as mayor of Auburndale. Her parents paid for her and her three siblings, plus a family friend’s, college educations. They weren’t rich, Yost says, just hard workers.
“I saw my parents helping people with several things, and I just thought it was something I could do,” she says of teaching music. “And I’m glad I have.”
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