Sterling Kepp Gernet
1904 - 1975
Sterling Gernet was a gifted pianist who taught in two academies and four Seventh-day Adventist colleges in a career that spanned over four decades. He also served as principal at the secondary level and as chair of the music department at one college.
Sterling Gernet was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on July 19, 1904, the oldest of three sons of Frank L. and Mabel A. Kepp Gernet. A brilliant student in both grade school and high school, he pursued interests in French, drama, and chemistry, as well as music. For four years following high school he studied piano at the Philadelphia Music Academy. In 1930 he married Kathryn Tyce and was hired to teach piano at Union College, where he taught full-time for a year and then assisted while pursuing a degree at nearby University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He completed a B.A. in music theory and piano at UNL in 1935.
Following graduation, Gernet taught for one year at Enterprise Academy in Kansas and then served as a principal for a year at Lake Ariel Academy in Pennsylvania while also doing graduate study. In 1937 he completed a master's degree in music education at Temple University in Philadelphia, immediately started to work on a doctoral degree, and accepted a position at Walla Walla College, now University.
Two years later he completed his degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, becoming the first music teacher at WWC and in Adventist colleges to have an earned doctorate in music.* In his program he had had extensive training in music theory and had studied composition under Darius Milhaud, noted French composer.
While at WWC he established an impressive reputation for his technical prowess on the piano, his musicianship, and his phenomenal memory. He gave frequent recitals, practiced constantly, and memorized eleven concertos, along with other shorter works. A colleague of his, Stanley Walker, would later observe, " Sterling Gernet was a very unusual person with a fantastic memory. I believe he knew all of Chopin's works. While here [at WWC], he played all of the Chopin etudes and preludes in two different recitals." Gernet also played clarinet, saxophone, violin, cello, and trumpet and was an adept composer and arranger.
He left WWC in 1946 to teach and chair the music department at Pacific Union College. A year later he married Eleanor Dorothea Wentworth. He returned to the Northwest in 1951 for eleven more years at WWC. In the year of his return, Gernet performed the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto in G minor with the Walla Walla Symphony. A year later he performed the 24 preludes from Chopin's Opus 28 and encored with the composer's Waltz in Bb and Etude, Opus 10, No. 5 (Black Key Etude). Two months later, in a joint recital with Walker, he performed the Prelude, Chorale et Fugue by Cesar Franck.
In 1962 he accepted an invitation to work again with Walker, who was serving as chair of the music department at Atlantic Union College. Gernet continued at AUC for the next seven years, returning to the Walla Walla area in September 1969 for medical care for Eleanor, who had been suffering from a lengthy illness. Following her death two months later, on November 28, Sterling returned to AUC, where taught until his retirement in 1970.
He returned to Walla Walla and then married Genevieve Eloise Gildersleeve Sargeant Mikelson on May 27, 1972. They were residing in Walla Walla, at the time of his death three years later on September 27, 1975, at age 71.
*Although Birt Summers at Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, had been awarded a "Doctor of Music" degree by the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago in 1923, it appears to have been awarded strictly on the basis of his work as a composer and not by the completion of an outlined program of study. It would likely be similar to the honorary degrees awarded in today's academic world.
Sources: Francis Soper, "Piano Instructor Reveals Life Interests; Is Working on Doctor's Thesis," The Walla Walla College school paper, The Collegian, 2 March 1939, 1; 1940 WWC yearbook, Mountain Ash, 32; Obituary for Eleanor Gernet, 30 November 1969, 5 (although still living in So. Lancaster, she had returned to Walla Walla for medical treatment); Stanley Walker Interviews, July 1990 and October 1991; Dan Shultz, A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, 1992, 74, 75,88, 89,106, 107. Sterling Gernet Obituaries: Accent on AUC, April-June 1976; Review and Herald, 20 November 1975; North Pacific Union Gleaner, 3 November 1975.