Thelma L. Johnson McCoy

1924 - 2022

Thelma Johnson, a pianist and cellist, taught music for over 65 years. Her teaching career started at Walla Walla College, now University, in 1946, when she was hired immediately following graduation to assist in teaching piano lessons. Even though she had an offer to teach at Pacific Union College, where Sterling Gernet, her piano teacher at WWC for the last five years, had just accepted a position, she chose to stay. Years later she talked about her first teaching experience:

In my first year as a faculty member I had a total of seventy-five students when I began. Eighteen of them were veterans [World War II]. They had returned with all this money. There wasn\\'t anything they couldn\\'t buy - any book they wanted, whether they needed it or not, and music lessons.

I would start at seven in the morning and would go home at ten at night. I would practice in the evenings. I was paid $125 a month.

I went to Dr. Bowers, the president, one day and told him I wanted to know "where all the rest of the money goes that I\\'m making for you." He said, `It goes into a big pot and pays people who have small classes in select areas of the college." I said, "Well, maybe I should go back down to 10 or 15 students and draw from this pot."

We women, especially the single women, were upset about the smaller salary we were paid when compared to the men. In the summer an unmarried woman got no salary, but did get a dollar a day. You were on your own.

The men really weren\\'t paid that well either. At that time we all considered it as part of service to the church, a missionary task.

Thelma had been born in Waitsberg, Washington, on November 3, 1924, in a home where music was an important part of life. She and her brother, Melvin, a violinist, had lessons from their earliest years. She distinguished herself At Walla Walla College as an unusually talented pianist and a natural  and popular student teacher.  She took additional graduate study in piano in the summers at the Juilliard School of Music, where she studied under scholarship with Carl Friedberg. During her four years of teaching at WWC, she met and married Richard McCoy, a theology student who was also a musician. Although he graduated in 1950 as a theology major, he would eventually complete a master\'s degree in conducting at Columbia University. She later returned to Juilliard for additional study in piano with Lanny Epstein. Subsequent piano teachers included David Campbell, Lillian Steuber, John T. Moore, Loran Olsen, and Lois Golding.

The McCoys would both pursue lifetime careers in teaching music. Following their first position at Laurelwood Academy in Oregon, they taught at Lynwood Academy in California and at Gem State Academy in Idaho. After moving to Port Angeles, Washington, she taught piano privately while Richard taught in the public school system for 30 years. She continued to teach piano after his retirement, maintaining a large studio for a number of years. Richard assisted by teaching theory to her students.

In June 2010, she was inducted into the Washington Music Educators Hall of Fame, an honor granted to a select few. She continued to play the piano and organ for church and public events. Many of her students were featured at state conferences and contests. 

They were living in Port Angeles, Wahington, when Richard died in 2011, at age 84. Thelma was living in Bellevue, Washington, when she died on June 24, 2022, at age 97. She is survived by her brother, Melvin; two daughters, Nancy Nedderman and Colette Sharer; a great grandchild; and three great-grandchildren. 


Sources: Completed WWC Alumni Information form from summer 1976 issue of WWC Music Department magazine Opus; Letter to Dan Shultz, 7 January 1990; Interview, 19 June 1990; Dan Shultz, A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, 89,90; "Port Angeles Music Teacher Honored," October 2010 NPUC Gleaner; 25  North Pacific Union Gleaner, August 2011, 31; and September/October; 2022, 50; Personal Knowledge.