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Composed career: Gonzaga professor Kevin Waters shares his story

Sun., March 2, 2014

The Rev. Kevin Waters helps Gonzaga University music major Joe Hooper fine-tune an original composition.
The Rev. Kevin Waters helps Gonzaga University music major Joe Hooper fine-tune an original composition.

Three out of four U.S. adults expect to continue working past retirement age, according to a Gallup poll.

Thirty-five percent anticipate postponing retirement out of necessity. But 40 percent predict they’ll continue working by choice, at least part time.

Kevin Waters is firmly in the “by choice” camp.

The octogenarian academic – who answers to “Father Waters,” “professor Waters” or simply “Kevin” – began teaching 56 years ago. Since then, he’s been a professor, administrator and composer-in-residence, with more than two dozen published compositions to his credit.

Waters’ current workload at Gonzaga University includes classes in composition, orchestration, opera and philosophy.

During a recent interview, he discussed qualities that distinguish the best educators, and why he chooses to continue teaching.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Waters: In Seattle.

S-R: What were your interests as a youngster?

Waters: I was always passionate about music. I started piano studies in the first grade, and continued through elementary and secondary school.

S-R: Any other activities outside of school?

Waters: We had a small farm, and I loved gardening. I was particularly interested in the variety of irises and roses coming out right after the Second World War. The peach rose was something I was very eager to develop.

S-R: What career did you envision for yourself back then?

Waters: I imagined working as an organist and church musician before I decided to enter the Society of Jesus.

S-R: When did you make that decision?

Waters: In 1951, when I was a high school senior.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

Waters: I attended high school at Seattle Prep, and certainly some of the Jesuits there were mentors.

S-R: What did you do before joining Gonzaga University in 1983 as music professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?

Waters: I began teaching at an all-boys Jesuit high school in Yakima in 1958. I taught French, Latin, English, drama, religion – just about everything. After I was ordained, I earned a doctorate in composition and taught music at Seattle University.

S-R: How has technology affected education during your career?

Waters: I think it’s had an enormously positive impact, particularly in the courses I teach. For example, when I was studying composition, everything was handwritten. When you transcribed final copies, you used India ink on vellum, and if you made a mistake, you had to get a razor blade and cut out the mistake. Everything is computerized today. It’s very much like word processing.

S-R: Does that make for better music?

Waters: No, I wouldn’t say that. In fact, I think it has a lot of problems associated with it, because students sometimes pay more attention to how something looks rather than how it sounds. So I make them handwrite it before they put it into a computer.

S-R: What do they think of that?

Waters: There’s resistance.

S-R: What insights have you gained about teaching during the past 56 years?

Waters: On my tests, I often include the bonus question, “What have you learned in this course that you didn’t know before?” I think when students reflect on what they have learned, it sticks with them more. And that’s very important.

S-R: Could you have retired at 65?

Waters: I could have.

S-R: Why do you still work at 80?

Waters: I love teaching – I’ve never found it burdensome or boring. And, fortunately, I have good health.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Waters: Meeting the younger generation over and over again. It never repeats itself. And as I tell my students, if you’re bored with life, then you’re doing something wrong, and you have to look for things that interest you.

S-R: What do you like least?

Waters: When a student is not doing well and, for whatever reason, I can’t make a difference for them. If they fail, I feel I’ve failed.

S-R: How do today’s students compare with those you encountered when you arrived at Gonzaga 31 years ago?

Waters: Students today are exposed to far more things than they were in 1983. So you might say there was a greater innocence or naïveté back then. But I wouldn’t necessarily say students today are wiser.

S-R: Any favorite student comments?

Waters: Recently one of my students said, “I’m really stoked by this course.” That could mean any number of things, but I took it as a positive reaction.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited for an academic career?

Waters: Someone who’s more interested in their students’ success than their own. If that’s your attitude, you’ll be successful.

S-R: How do you organize your day?

Waters: Jesuits say a prayer at the end of the day called the Examen, where we praise God for all the things that went well, take responsibility and ask forgiveness for the things that didn’t go well, and then plan for the next day – what we hope to achieve.

S-R: What are your goals?

Waters: To continue composing. My hero is Elliott Carter, who was composing and performing right up to shortly before he died two years ago at age 103.

S-R: What have you learned about life so far?

Waters: People are basically good. If they go wrong, it’s usually because of overbearing circumstances in their lives, or they felt people didn’t care about them.

S-R: How do you relax?

Waters: I swim almost every day.

If you know of someone who would make an interesting Front and Center profile, contact freelance writer Michael Guilfoil via email at


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