A Book of Letters to honor the legacy of a great teacher and mentor

We want to share with you some fragments of a wonderful book we recently made for the much loved retiring Iowa high-school teacher and mentor, Ken Huen.

“…here’s a collection of letters from the generations of students, parents, and teachers you have affected over the years.”

LETTER FROM Katie R. (from Runnells, Iowa):

Dear Mr. Huen,

Congratulations on your retirement! As you prepare to leave the classroom, I am sure many parents, teachers, and administrators will commend you for the years you spent building a successful band program at NHS (just look at all those Division I ratings on the wall!). And I am sure many of your former students will remember you for your funny quotes, the stories you would tell about performing with the Des Moines Symphony, and your motorcycle. But what I appreciate most about your tenure as an educator may be a little different.

You have meant so much to the Norwalk School District and it won’t be the same without you.”

You remember that before the auditorium was built in Norwalk, you would take your band to Waukee High School every year to give us the opportunity to play in a real performance space. After the concert, the music boosters would host a cookie reception. One particular year, a few of the boys from Norwalk took about a dozen cookies each (let’s face it: they were all tuba players). The next day you lectured us about the appropriate number of cookies to take at a reception and-in a phrase worthy of the Huen Quote Folder-declared, “I don’t want my tombstone to say, ‘Was a band director.’ I want it to say, ‘Taught people manners,’ because that’s more important.” I still laugh about that! But that “Huenism” captures what I most appreciate about you: you didn’t just want your students to be good musicians, you wanted us to be good people.

“I don’t want my tombstone to say, ‘Was a band director.’ I want it to say, ‘Taught people manners,’ because that’s more important.”

There are probably few students in your career you benefited more than I did from your skills as a music educator. You prepped me for All-State auditions every year and hauled me to Ames and back, even when I was the only student in the festival. You coached me through the process of auditioning for college scholarships. In my senior year, you even gave me the opportunity to play a concerto with the band. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of hours you specifically invested in me. You cared about making me the best musician I could be and I am forever grateful.

But even more, I am grateful that you cared about me as a person. I remember that you were one of the only adults I confided in when my parents divorced during my senior year and that you (sometimes awkwardly) gave me relationship advice! I remember that you let me do homework in the band room, because it was really the only place I liked to be in high school. I remember that you attended my college recital and my ordination, years after I stopped being your student. And even now when I bump into you at the grocery store or a wedding reception, you genuinely want to hear about my life. You never had to teach me how many cookies to take at a reception (after all, I’m not a tuba player), but you still taught me a lot about kindness, hard work, and humor. I love that you helped make me a good musician, but you also helped make me a good person. And you are right: that is far more important.

So for all of the ways that you shaped young people like me, thank you. You are everything a teacher should be and we were lucky to have been your students.With love and gratitude, Katie Russell

LETTER FROM LaDonna C. R. (from Des Moines):

Experts say a child needs five adults who are not related to her but who are involved in her life, in order for her to realize her full potential. Katie is so blessed that one of her adults is Mr. Huen.

Katie shared all sorts of “Huen stories” over the years, most of them very funny. Some were quite touching. On more than one occasion she remarked to me that Mr. Huen was more of a dad to her than her father was. I’ll always remember the evening of her final concert, seeing tears streaming down her face, only to hear from her later that she started crying when she saw that Mr. Huen was crying.

Mr. Huen was a teacher who encouraged Katie toward excellence. In fact, he insisted on it. More than that, he was a father figure to her, someone who “got” her and understood her passion for music, for laughter, and for life. He continued his influence and presence far beyond her high school graduation. He attended her ordination for ministry and as I write this we look forward to his presence this spring at her wedding.

I’m certain others will share stories that will bring laughter and tears. Surely someone has a tambourine box and many band folders covered in quotes. For my part, words are not adequate. I’m simply, immensely, grateful. Thank you, Mr. Huen.

Katie’s mom, LaDonna R.

LETTER FROM Andy S. (from Milwaukee, WI):

Of all my education there was maybe only one teacher that understood me. I wasn’t the easiest student. I was late all the time and frankly kind of a terrorist. I was not given a chance to learn differently or even be respected by most. You understood me but more than that made me feel like I could actually be somebody. You knew education did not come easy for me but never judged me. The opposite, in fact, you allowed me to focus on music because you knew it was the only path I could take. A path which has lead me to perform hundreds of shows to thousands of people all over the country.

“I remember you sitting me down to listen to one of the baddest men on earth, Monte Montgomery. Still to this day one of the biggest influences of my guitar life.”

I don’t even know how I got away with it but I remember spending hours and hours during school in the makeshift recording studio you had assembled for students. You would walk past, through the double doors, almost as if you knew I was there but pretended I was not. Some of those recordings I still have today. I remember being in absolute awe one day when I brought my acoustic to school. You whipped it up and perfectly tuned it in about 7 seconds flat. I told myself I would do that one day. I remember sitting in the office listening to Lenny Kravitz Cab Driver. You looked at me and said ‘now this is rock and roll man’. I remember discovering Acoustic Alchemy and being astonished nylon guitar could be done so cool. But the biggest one. I remember you sitting me down to listen to one of the baddest men on earth, Monte Montgomery. Still to this day one of the biggest influences of my guitar life.

You were my guide to the music world for almost a decade. All these things shaped who I am today and I still think about you all the time. I say this last thing in 100% honesty. Whenever I am struggling with something or don’t want to do something your voice will pop in my head “don’t be a bum” and I get right back to it.

Thank you for everything, Ken.

FRAGMENT FROM A LETTER FROM Heather N.:

(…) Things I will never forget – probably the time you and Jeff made me sit last chair in middle school band because I skipped my chair placement lesson, and I had to challenge my way back to first chair during that year. That sucked. I still tell all of my students that story, and I try to teach them early before those mistakes and lack of organization are more costly (in hindsight – thank you for doing that).

I will also always remember when I stopped by a couple years after graduation and you looked at my hand and commented, “wait, little miss I don’t need a man is already engaged?!” Seventeen years later I suppose it was an okay decision but looking back, yeah holy cow was I young.

You, and the music department, were also a sane place for me. With my mom’s illness all the way through and some of the other stresses in life, having a place to focus on excellence, grow relationships, and find time to feel like a kid were priceless. I hope I am doing the same for my students now, who may never know how much of who I am they owe to you. (…)

And here are some photos from the recent celebration ceremony in which the 114 page book containing 38 letters from students, parents and colleagues was presented to Ken. Thank you Kara and everyone for sharing your story with us, and Happy Retirement to Ken!

Our Book Layout Explained

What happens when a letter is accompanied by a photograph, or by a group of photographs?

Generally, we print one photo per page, following the letter, no matter how many photos there are associated with it. We always try to match photos with letters on a page spread, so you don’t see a letter from someone opposite a photo that someone else has uploaded with their letter. Sometimes things fall nicely into place on their own. But rarely. So we play with font style and size, and with combining some of the photos into groups. But that doesn’t always work. So, to accomplish that magical alignment of stars – I mean of content – we sometimes need to change the sequence of letters. That’s why we always ask our book organizers if we can resort to that step, if necessary.

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On Letting Go

I have a Bird in spring

It’s been almost 9 years since my oldest son (M) left home and moved across the country, some 3000+ miles away, to live on his own. He would come back home for Christmas. A few years in, my youngest son (T) had cemented his belief that Christmas was THAT: the coming home of his brother. That M’s visit was Santa’s ultimate Christmas apparition. Some years later we moved. Now between us was not just one continent, but also one ocean. And M’s coming home became Christmas, whatever the time of year that he may visit: a cause for celebration.

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A Book for OFA

As does any enterprise, FromABirdie, has had a number of pivotal before-and-after moments. For a few years after launching our letter-writing platform, we kept our service in the purely digital realm. Our system compiled all the letters coming in into electronic albums and sent them to their recipients via email on their special day. Then came one special occasion that made us take it one step further, closer to our original mission.

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Teacher and Staff Appreciation Event at a New Jersey School

On May 25th, FromABirdie delivered 112 books, 1902 letters, and 3314 pages to the teachers and staff at the Noor Ul Iman (NUI) school’s Staff Appreciation Lunch in NJ. The books of letters were coordinated by the extraordinary NUI PTO members. We are so thrilled and grateful to have had this opportunity, and hope to work on many future collaborations with PTOs and PGAs everywhere!

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A big day for From A Birdie (FAB!) today!

We just sent out to our printer an order for over a hundred of albums of letters – our biggest to date!  Each book is unique, and is comprised of thank you and adoration letters to teachers in Philadelphia written (and drawn!) by their students and students’ parents.  We will have these books delivered to the recipients just on time for the Teacher Appreciation Day at the end of May!

Continue reading “A big day for From A Birdie (FAB!) today!”