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‘Margie May’ Ott dies at 89

Margaret  Ott, photographed in 2003.  (File)
Margaret Ott, photographed in 2003. (File)

Pianist, teacher was strong arts backer

Margaret Ott, a Spokane music icon and internationally known pianist and teacher, died Tuesday at the age of 89.

Known to most as “Margie May,” Ott was a steadfast supporter of the arts in Spokane and a major contributor to the Spokane Symphony over the years.

Her teaching career spanned nearly 80 years and touched the lives of thousands of students in Spokane.

“I think that her reach and her impact on people’s lives both personally and professionally and musically is hard to measure,” said her son, Dan Ott, who lives in Boston. “That legacy will go on for a long time to come.”

Ott – hailed as the “trunk of Spokane’s piano-teaching family tree,” by those who had worked with her at Whitworth University – was dedicated to a life of music.

She was born Margaret May Saunders and she grew up in Mount Hope, a small farming community between Fairfield and Rockford southeast of Spokane. She started playing piano at age 7 and gave her first private lesson at the age of 11.

“I think she loved playing, but she loved teaching,” Dan Ott said. “She brought excitement around the world of music.”

Ott enrolled at the University of Washington at age 16, and later earned her master’s degree in piano from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

While in New York, Ott studied under Olga “Madam” Samaroff, an American pianist, teacher at Julliard and music critic for the New York Evening Post.

Over the years Ott accompanied many vocal legends in performance, such as operatic tenor Robert Merrill.

From 1943 until 1991, Ott taught at Washington State University, Gonzaga, Whitworth and Payap University, in Thailand. She performed master classes in 42 states and five countries, and later was a soloist for the Spokane Symphony and the Spokane Chamber Players.

She retired from the faculty at Whitworth in 1985 after 25 years of service.

Her husband, the late Franklin Ott, served on the Whitworth University board of trustees from 1975 until 2002; the pair established the Franklin and Margie May Ott Endowed Music Scholarship at the school.

She was also instrumental in the creation of Musicfest Northwest – formerly known as the Greater Spokane Allied Arts Festival – an annual competition for young performers. She was named Teacher of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association in 2003.

Ott’s greatest legacy is perhaps her iconic career as a private piano teacher in Spokane. Her former students dot the national landscape as teachers and professors.

“She taught us how to live,” said Deborah Dewey, a concert pianist, judge, lecturer and instructor who resides in Seattle.

Dewey said Ott had the incredible gift of viewing her students in individual ways and understanding “what was right for each of us.”

“No matter what limits you might put on yourself, she viewed you as limitless,” Dewey said. “When you have somebody that views you in that way, you work up to that level.” Dewey said Ott’s teaching and companionship didn’t stop after each lesson. “It never stopped when you stopped studying with her; all of us have been lifelong friends,” Dewey said. “When any of us come to town, we would see her first.”

Ott is survived by two sons, Jim Ott of Portland, and Dan Ott of Medfield, Mass., and two granddaughters, Katie and Emily Ott.

Date and time for Ott’s memorial service have not yet been announced.

Memorial contributions may be made in her name to the Music Teachers National Association, Whitworth University’s Franklin and Margie May Ott Endowed Music Scholarship, the Spokane Symphony, Musicfest Northwest, the Spokane Opera or the arts organization of one’s choice.



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