Russell James Hoffman

1933 -  

Russell Hoffman, a singer with a remarkable life story, was a successful teacher in both music and art. He and his brother, Bill, both of whom had wonderfully resonant singing voices, were widely known as the "singing Hoffman Brothers."

Hoffman was born in Beach, North Dakota, one of seven children born to Fern Kirkpatrick and Andrew Falstead. Their mother died when she was 31 from a hyperactive thyroid and, in the following year, the father died from complications arising from a work accident. Russell, though very young at the time of their deaths, years later still remembered the circumstances of life in their home:

We lived in abject poverty. We didn't even have a bed to sleep in. My father had a still in the basement that he made liquor with to sell to buy shoes for us kids. It was the Depression, and he drove a coal truck for a living in return for coal for the stove. When we opened the front door in the mornings, there was food on the steps that the neighbors had left for us.

Following the father's death, an announcement was made at a Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting that summer that there were "seven children who need to be placed in homes now, not tomorrow."

William and Ruth Hoffman, a childless couple, were present at that camp meeting and expressed interest in adopting Russell. The welfare worker told them, "You can have the child, but you must also take his brother, Bill." Russell was two years old and his brother was only an infant of nine months. Both were adopted by the Hoffmans and spent their early childhood years in Carrington, North Dakota, where their new parents were school teachers.

The Hoffmans were talented amateur musicians, the mother playing the piano and father the violin. That exposure to music in the home, coupled with the fact that their natural father had also been a violinist and both Russell and his brother had inherited that talent for music, along with fine voices, led them into music.

While they were in grade school, the father took a job at a private self-supporting junior academy in Memphis, Tennessee, where Russell attended until he was ready for high school and left to attend Enterprise Academy in Kansas. In his four years at the academy, he sang in the choir and studied voice under three different teachers, Francis Cossentine in his first year, Hart Hanson for the next two years, and Harold Lickey in his senior year.

All three of these men were exceptional teachers, an inspiration to me. I couldn't have asked for better musicians or better teachers. While I knew at that point that I was going to teach music, I had known I was going to be a teacher long before that, since my mother and father were teachers.

When I was in grade school, I would sit behind my father's desk and know that this was going to be my vocation. My father made it look so easy and so fascinating. I wanted to be exactly what dad was.

Russell graduated from academy in 1952 and enrolled as a music major at Union College. He studied under J. Wesley Rhodes for two years and then was drafted into the army. He was stationed in the Washington, D.C., area and was part of the first group to participate in the White Coats program at Walter Reed Medical Center. While in the area, he sang in the U.S. Army Chorus.

In 1956, Martha Rose Gist, a student who had been at UC when he was there and had recently graduated, came to visit him. He had been attracted to her while at UC and now proposed to her. They married in El Paso, Texas, that summer.

While Russell was in the army, his brother, Bill, had been attending Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, where he had been impressed with choir director and voice teacher Melvin Davis. Just as Russell was finishing his service in the army, he received a letter from Davis inviting him to go Walla Walla College, now University, where he would be teaching that autumn. When Russell learned that Bill was transferring to WWC, he decided to move there with his new bride and enrolled at WWC also.

Hoffman completed a B.Mus. in music education in 1959 and that fall began teaching in a school in Dayton, a small community near Walla Walla. It was a new school and he taught in the elementary and junior high level. After two years, he went to Clarkston, Washington, where for the next three years he was in charge of the music program at three elementary schools.

In the summers, he pursued graduate study at University of Texas Western, now the University of Texas El Paso, where he eventually completed an MFA, with an emphasis on visual arts. His wife convinced him they should move to a warmer climate and, in 1964, they moved Los Altos, near Mountain View, California, where he was hired to be music director and coordinator for music in the middle school. Located in an upper class community, it was the smallest district in California and although a public school, its ambiance and operation created the atmosphere of a private school.

Hoffman worked there for the next ten years, directing an extensive choral music program. At the end of that time, he went to the superintendent of the school district with a proposal:

I said to him, I've got a plan. He said, "Maybe I better sit down, Russell. Whenever you say I have a plan, it's usually something off the wall." I said, "Well, this is off the wall. The person who has taught visual arts in the district at these two middle schools is retiring. I have a degree in visual arts. I would like to start a new program in the arts and call it Fine Arts and teach music and art together."

He said, "Hmm." Of course, he's thinking money. Superintendents are always thinking money. "One guy is going to retire and the other one is going to take both jobs. That means I'm free to hire someone else elsewhere. Not too bad." I had his attention!

He said, "OK, I will talk to the principals and see how they like the idea." They approved, with the understanding that I write an acceptable curriculum core for art and music in the middle school that would work. He also said, "If it doesn't work, we will give you a choice of either continuing with music or teaching art." It worked for twenty years, until I retired.

When I took on this project, I wanted a hands-on approach to visual arts in the form of a student museum. Children would take the seventh grade classroom art from me, and in the eighth grade in the second semester they would paint murals of famous works of art. In twenty years, my students in middle school, and some who had gone on to high school and then returned to participate, painted 100 murals in Los Altos.

For four or five years, I lectured on "A Mural Gallery in Your Schools" at art conventions in California, describing my program to fellow art educators. State Farm Insurance learned about our program and wanted to use it in an ad in magazines.

Although the plan was to treat music and art equally, in time the visual arts took over, and when I retired they hired someone teach art and another person to teach music.

In 1995, the National Art Education Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C., named Hoffman "National Art Instructor of the Year." The following year, State Farm Insurance gave him a "Good Neighbor Award" and $5,000.

About that time he started taking seniors in high school who had been exceptional art students into a program of touring called Art Galleries of the Western World. He continued this program, which was limited to ten students each year, until he retired in 2001 and then for two more years beyond retirement. For three weeks, they traveled in Europe, starting with a visit to the Tate Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in London. They then continued on to the Lourve in France, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and to other centers of art in Venice, Milan, Vienna, and Rome.

After doing that tour for six years, he decided to take another route. After flying into Paris, they went down to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and then toured through the Middle East, traveling to Istanbul, Ephesus, and into Russia, where they visited the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Gallery in Moscow.

Students who took these tours have been high achievers in their careers, some in the arts. One is now teaching art at Princeton University; another is teaching art design at the University of California San Diego;, yet another is a muralist who works with nationally noted artist John Pugh in California.

In the summer of 2008, he traveled with some of his former tour students to visit Machupicchu in Peru. While in that country, they went to Lake Titicaca, where Hoffman had an inspiring experience he recently recalled with enthusiasm:

We were on a houseboat named the Titanic, on Sabbath and approached a manmade floating island made out of reeds on which there were thatched roof houses. The Guide said, "Would you believe there are three schools on this island? Two are public schools, and the other is run by the Seventh-day Adventist church."

When we landed on the island, I jumped out of the boat and tore all over the island, looking for the Adventist church. I found it, entered, and was greeted by the minister who came to the back to greet me. I emptied my wallet in the offering plate and had a great visit with the pastor.

Although Hoffman's teaching commitments have been the primary focus in his life, he has produced some art, working mostly in charcoal and watercolor. He has also done some oil painting and soapstone sculpting.

On the personal level, the Hoffmans adopted and raised two children:

Martha and I adopted two girls, Camille and Heather. They were the center of our lives as children and continue to be so today as adults. My wife must have done something right in raising them for they are wonderful caring persons who look after me like I'm their child.

Following the death of his wife in 2003, he moved to San Francisco, where he now resides.



Source: Interview, Russell Hoffman, 2008; Golden Valley News, 19 December 1935