On Thursday, May 23, I had the opportunity to travel to Towanda, PA to the 10th Annual Meeting of the Community Foundation for the Twin Tiers to talk about the Darlene J. Sitler Memorial Scholarship Fund that I helped found with three friends from high school. The above link is the newspaper article written about the Meeting.
Below is the text of my speech, in case you're interested in reading what I said.
The first time I met Darlene Sitler was during the first week of kindergarten. She was in her second year of teaching music in the Northern Potter School District, and as I shuffled into the Library-slash-Art Room-slash-Music Room at Harrison Valley Elementary, Ms. Sitler greeted us with a great big smile.
That’s the first thing I remember about Ms. Sitler. She was this petite woman with curly brown hair, big, almond-shaped eyes, and one of the best smiles in the history of forever. Even during that first music class, it was impossible not to notice and be carried away by Ms. Sitler’s warmth, enthusiasm, energy, and love for music. I didn’t know the word when I was in kindergarten, but Ms. Sitler was a dynamo.
Those first few weeks of kindergarten were really eventful for me and my class, and that is in no small part due to Ms. Sitler. Not long into the schoolyear, Ms. Sitler brought along the Big Box of Musical Instruments that contained sand blocks, jingle bells, wood blocks and mallets, and metal triangles with strikers. Looking back on this twenty-nine years later and as an adult, this was nothing less than a show of Courage. By all accounts, even early on, the fledgling Class of 1996 was a wild and rowdy bunch of hooligans, and here Ms. Sitler was, willingly handing over a big box of noise to us.
We were shown how to play each kind of percussion instrument in that box, but Ms. Sitler took special care when she taught us how to extract a sweet sound from the triangles, sharply and decisively striking one of the open metal arms of the triangle, not going around and around the inside of the triangle like we’d seen on Little House on the Prairie and any western our parents would let us watch.
After demonstrating the triangle to us and making us PROMISE we’d play them PROPERLY, which of COURSE we did, she passed them out, and one of the boys in my class who’d already made one trip through kindergarten and who should have known better than to behave this way in front of a gaggle of impressionable rookie kindergarteners took his striker and ran it around and around the inside of that triangle and called out “DIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNERRRRRRRRR!”
And of course the rest of us followed his example.
Ms. Sitler sank down on her piano bench and stifled a wry grin.
“There’s one in every crowd,” she muttered. And she let us get our triangle terror out of our systems, after which we were more receptive to playing them ‘her’ way!
Ms. Sitler loved the holidays, and always built up our excitement for them by building her lessons around songs for the holiday. Her Christmas concerts were legendary, but it was a Halloween song that she’d sing that made a particular impression on me. It was a quiet, almost soothing song about an old woman, all skin and bones who lived down by an old graveyard, and Ms. Sitler would strum along on an autoharp until the song’s abrupt end, when she’d just drag her fingers over the autoharp’s strings and make it scream while she said “BOO!”
The first time I heard that song as a kindergartener, I jumped right out of my plastic chair. I wasn’t the only one. She’d sing that song to us every Halloween, and it didn’t matter how many times I’d heard it or how old I’d gotten. I’d jump every time!
Over the years, whether it was in music class or band and chorus, or when she’d chaperone a field trip, Ms. Sitler was a sparkling presence. She had an easy and contagious laugh. She greeted the day-to-day with a ready sense of humor. She had an uncanny ability to know when a kid needed a gentle push, or a well-timed word of encouragement. There was no need or real place for ruthless competition in her music room. Ms. Sitler strove to teach us that one voice is powerful enough, but the voices of many working together can bring down walls and move mountains.
After every band or chorus rehearsal, no matter how sour our notes or how off our rhythm was that day, Ms. Sitler would always call out “Excellent Rehearsal!” It took me years to understand what she meant: rehearsals are for learning and making ourselves better, not to play everything perfectly. “Excellent Rehearsal!” indeed!
On December 2, 2012, Ms. Sitler was taken too soon from this world, and the news of how she died went around the world in a flash. The Associated Press picked up the story, and soon it was all over the Internet. Ms. Sitler had been reduced to “the lady who was shot by her ex-husband while playing the organ for church,” and that seemed to be a grave injustice in my mind.
I was not alone. The day after Ms. Sitler’s passing, I awoke to find a message in my Facebook inbox from Melinda Martin, a woman who was a couple years behind me in school. She lives in Taiwan now, and wondered if I could help her set up a one-time memorial scholarship for Ms. Sitler. I told her I would do what I could, but admitted I didn’t know where to begin. Before the panicky “what am I gonna DO to help her?” feeling could settle in, Melinda had gotten in touch with a classmate of hers, Mike Thompson, and Mike in turn brought Matt Reed aboard. We’re all fairly far-flung geographically, and in those early days, and I do mean early- two days after Ms. Sitler’s passing, the only things the four of us really had in common were that we all graduated from Northern Potter in the mid-to-late 1990s, and that we all wanted to do something to honor Ms. Sitler, and to help ensure that she is remembered for the way she lived, for the way she inspired and encouraged us.
By Wednesday, December Fifth, 2012, Melinda, Mike, Matt, and I decided that we were going to form a scholarship committee, and instead of a one-time memorial scholarship, we wanted something that would have permanence. We all felt as though we had been blessed and honored to have been able to be in Ms. Sitler’s music classes, that we were better people for having known her, that each of her students had been touched by a light she had, and now that she isn’t here anymore to pass that light on herself, it’s fallen to us to do so for her.
The thing was, we had good intentions and very little know-how by that Wednesday. The four of us got together to chat over Google Hangouts, which is a lot like Skype, and it was both relieving and alarming to know that all four of us were feeling the same panicky pebble in the pits of our stomachs. Mike, the man who would emerge to be the Captain of our Scholarship, had gotten us some forms to fill out about incorporating as a not-for-profit organization, and we’d each dutifully printed out those forms and began filling them in, and as we were talking on our Internet chat that day, one of us broke the ice with “working with the IRS scares the daylights out of me,” and Melinda, the heart and soul of our committee said that she was certainly feeling “daunted.” We all agreed that this was far, far out of the comfort zone for any of us, but we managed to come up with the skeleton of a charter, and we wrote a mission statement that evening over our Internet chat. Because I’m the most local of the four of us, I was charged with heading to the bank the next day, to see what a group does when they want to set up a scholarship fund in honor of someone.
I didn’t sleep at all that night.
I’m no stranger to the bank. I’m no stranger to setting up a corporation. While we were still in our mid-twenties, my husband and I bought a dental practice, set up an S-corp with the considerable help of our accountant and our lawyer, and we’ve enjoyed successful business for nearly a decade. But I remember that even in setting up an S-corp, there were lots of draconian tax laws and Things to Know, and paying the accountant and the lawyer to help us navigate those waters was expensive enough for a rookie business owner. For a group of four friends who just wanted to set up a memorial scholarship for a treasured teacher, it wasn’t just “daunting,” it was darn near impossible.
The next morning, I was getting my toddler bundled up to head to Ulysses to the bank to see what I could find out about all of this, when the phone rang. It was the receptionist at my husband’s dentist’s office, and she said Ben Olney had just called and was looking for me. I got so excited I jumped up and down, startling the toddler, and I screamed into the phone, alarming our usually-unflappable receptionist.
I was so thrilled because while I was zipping up my daughter’s coat, it had occurred to me that I ought to stop in to the funeral home while I was in Ulysses, because of anyone in town, Ben Olney ought to know a thing or two about setting up memorial scholarships, or memorial funds, or would know where to steer me, Melinda, Mike, and Matt.
I don’t know how Ben found out about what we were up to, or how he heard about our plans to form a scholarship committee for Ms. Sitler. I’m sure it was more a product of living in a small town, and not magic, but that day, hearing about the Community Foundation for the Twin Tiers, and everything that organization does certainly felt like magic, because it was exactly what we needed, at exactly the right time. I wrote down as fast as I could everything Ben told me about the Community Foundation for the Twin Tiers, and was so excited about what I found out that I really had to modulate that energy when I told the rest of the scholarship committee about the Community Foundation, so that I wasn’t talking at warp-speed, and not yelling into the computer microphone.
After a few days of deliberating amongst ourselves, we decided that the Community Foundation for the Twin Tiers is exactly the organization we should work with, because all the hard work is done for us. The CFTT already has tax-exempt status. There are systems in place, precedents already set. Working with the CFTT ensures that no administrative detail falls through a crack and that the people who donate dollars to our Fund are able to use their generous donations to their benefit at tax time. Once we sat down and took into consideration everything that the Community Foundation does for our Fund, the administrative fees are a bargain.
I won’t say that if it weren’t for the Community Foundation for the Twin Tiers, the Darlene J. Sitler Memorial Scholarship would not have happened. But I can say with certainty that we would not be as far ahead as we are today. Because we know that the Community Foundation is taking care of all our administrative needs, we’re able to keep our minds on raising funds for our Scholarship, and to keep our minds and hearts on the mission of the Darlene J. Sitler Memorial Scholarship Fund:
We seek to honor the person Darlene Sitler was and turn the focus away from the way she died and put the spotlight back on the way she lived, the way she instructed, inspired, and encouraged. We plan to give our scholarship each year to a student graduating from Northern Potter High School who has participated in the music program and who plans to attend college to become a teacher. While we would be thrilled to award our scholarship to a future music teacher, our scholarship committee believes that someone can take to heart the lessons learned in a music class or in band and chorus and use them to instruct, inspire, and encourage students at any level, in any field.During her life and career, Ms. Sitler touched thousands of lives with her determination, strength of character, and enthusiasm. Now it’s up to us to pass her light into the future, and the Community Foundation for the Twin Tiers is helping us do just that.