For nearly four decades, Verne Windham was the voice of Spokane Public Radio.
While Friday may have marked his last day at KPBX, his influence on the community – as a musician, a conductor, a radio announcer and a teacher – stretches far beyond.
The City of Spokane has officially declared Tuesday “Verne Windham Day,” which was announced during Monday night’s Fourth of July concert.
“Verne Windham has been an absolutely central and integral part of the musical life of Spokane for many, many years … and in so many different roles,” Spokane Symphony music director James Lowe said. “He’s one of those characters who has brought music to more people than you could possibly begin to count.
“His voice will be very much missed on the radio.”
Windham, 75, remembers walking into the station for the first time just four years after its opening with an idea for a program.
“The program idea wasn’t exactly followed, but still, I think they knew that somebody’d walked in that might be valuable,” he said.
He was initially brought on to work the annual pledge drive. Shortly after, when they found out he “could handle talking,” Windham found himself with a part-time position as an announcer.
Despite having no previous experience in radio, Windham quickly found he had a brain for it – and, as he eventually recognized, a voice to match.
“As I became a musician … I just honed that skill constantly in all the ways that a musician has to,” he said. “It was an interesting circle. I talked about music, found I could, found I was good at it and so I’d been talking about music for years before I got to the radio station.”
He graduated to full time in 1988, later taking on other roles including librarian, music director, interviewer, classical music host, literary coordinator and finally program director.
For many, it’s hard to imagine the station without Windham.
“Verne has greatly helped shape the music, arts, and culture communities in our broadcast area, as well as the cultural programming and sound of SPR,” said Cary Boyce, Spokane Public Radio president and general manager. “The next time you go to a concert, attend a theater performance, or even visit a museum, or hear a preview of these on SPR, chances are great that Verne has had a hand in what you experience.”
A graduate of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, with a master’s degree in music from Washington State University, Windham is also known for his lectures on music. He has served as a visiting lecturer for WSU, Whitworth University and Spokane Falls Community College, and delivered lectures for the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Commission on the Humanities, Allegro Baroque and Beyond and Connoisseur Concerts’ Northwest Bach Festival.
“Verne is the anchor of the multiple arts communities in the Inland Northwest,” said KPBX host Leonard Oakland. “He is, and has been for more than three decades, the light that in its shining proclaims that all the arts –and especially music – are important to the richness and meaning of our lives together.”
For Windham, conducting came as naturally as speaking. As a child in the earl ’50s, he remembers listening to Arturo Toscanini on the radio.
“My dad would give me a tinker toy and I’d conduct along,” he said.
The real conducting wasn’t far behind, however. Starting with his high school pep band, Windham soon inherited his father’s position conducting their church choir. A string of other conducting roles followed him through college and grad school and continued through his move to Spokane after graduation.
Locally, Windham has served as the choir director at Westminster United Church of Christ and conductor for Spokane Ballet, Spokane Opera and Viennese Ball, among others. But Windham’s fondest memories of conducting are from the years he spent with the Spokane Youth Symphony from 1996-2011.
“Verne had a personal relationship with nearly every Youth Symphony member,” said Phil Baldwin, Spokane Youth Symphony Orchestra conductor. “One of my favorite memories was the final SYSO concert in which he brought all of the seniors on stage and mentioned something personal about each one. In turn, the students shared a story about the rock which sat over the hole in the floorboards of Verne’s favorite Honda Civic.”
One of the things Windham is most looking forward to in retirement is the time he’ll have to listen and reflect on those 15 years of recordings.
“That was such a fulfilling part of my life,” Windham said. “But when we’re doing it we can never look back … you do the thing and then it’s on to the next thing and the next thing.
“I’m going to have a good time really digesting it all.”
Windham said the driving factor behind his success and, for that matter, the general attitude of Spokane Public Radio is “the desire and ability to communicate.”
But there’s more to it, Boyce explained.
“The main ingredient is curiosity – not just about the music and arts, necessarily, but the people who do it as well,” Boyce said. “He has questions about the cultures and thought behind any musical endeavor. You shore this up with a deep knowledge of music and the community that he walked in the door with, and there it is.
“He likes to say, ‘I came in to complain, and they hired me.’ I believe it, because he cares about bringing the products of our musical and artistic communities a wider audience. And that correlates directly to the quality of living here.”
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