Most of us have heroes. Some are parents, athletes, firemen, soldiers or big-screen actors. Probably, some are the people who excel at what their admirer wants to do for a living.

Think about your own heroes. Chances are you won’t be thinking too long before you land on the name of (at least) one of your former teachers.

I was blessed to be born to two parents who were totally supportive of everything I wanted to do. Of course, some of those things I wanted to do they weren’t so aware of, but that story will have to wait for another day.  

Point is, with that kind of parent, a kid has a lot of freedom to look for his or her path, as they say. This is where caring, nurturing teachers are so crucial.

I fell, or bounced, pretty far from the tree. Some in our family were hobbyists in the arts. A piano player here, a doodling sketch artist there. However, at one point or another, everybody grew up and decided to go after “normal people” jobs. But nobody was certifiably crazy about the arts. Except, well, me. And Mom. Man, she could sing. Beautiful alto. But she chose to raise us kids.

God bless her.

In kindergarten, I had a teacher who knew I was unique. Her name was Mrs. Klotz. She didn’t mind when I spent a couple of extra seconds on my drawing after the others were finished. She was kind, gentle and soft-spoken. She sort of reminded me of Mom. Years later, my daughter, Jessi, also had a great kindergarten teacher at Wolflin Elementary: Mrs. Matthews. I remember those days, partially because that Thanksgiving, I was probably the only 6-foot-tall guitar-playing turkey with an audience of 3-foot-tall Native Americans and Pilgrims in the city of Amarillo, though I wouldn’t put folding money on it. Jessi’s teacher treated her, and all the kids, the way I thought kids should be treated. It was fun to visit the class!

Back to my original story—after a few elementary school years being buffeted around for my abject ignorance of algebra, I found myself in Mr. Thomas Kelly’s sixth-grade class in Ankara, Turkey. A breath of fresh air! He had been one of the original Hanna-Barbera Banana Splits. If you don’t know who that is, Google it! He played one of the characters on a ’60s kids’ TV show that was, to me, more fun than a barrel of monkeys. 

Mr. Kelly was also an artist, known to say, “It’s a beautiful day. Put away all your books, we are going to paint!” My heart would leap halfway out of my chest and my art supplies would be out on my desk before you could say “Andy Warhol.” I understand it was a different day and time, but I wish it could still be that way for today’s kids.

So many years passed, so many teachers who taught me that my outside-the-box personality was OK. Some were adventurous Department of Defense teachers that wanted to see the world and shared their sense of intrepidity with me. Mr. Glaisyer, my overseas junior high drama and English teacher, wrote a stage play for our three-minute production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I found out years later that he has taught for decades in Gallup, New Mexico, on the reservation, and loves it. 

I attended Eastern New Mexico University in the ’70s. I also had trouble there with some classes, though I had skated through high school with honors. I didn’t even like my art teachers at ENMU, and they didn’t like me back. That was when I met Dr. Greg Lyne, a master vocal coach. He told me during a choral audition that my voice could “just fly.” He was a huge influence—reminding me, once again, of my mother’s encouragement.

My visual arts endeavors then began to reach the most nourishing of years, because I moved back to Kentucky to attend the school where my parents went. Campbellsville College (now University) had two of the most outstanding art teachers of my life. Tommy Clark was a clay-throwing, oil-and-acrylic-painting, charcoal-sketching, water-coloring artist/teacher who belonged to at least four or five national guilds and was a best friend to all the art majors, whether we knew it or not. The other was Cathy Downing, a master at so many mediums it was beyond belief. She was my primary influence in art history. Hours and years of studying, absorbing beautiful art. To this day, I am much better at art history than algebra.

When I think of my life in terms of riches, I think of these and so many other teachers. I am eternally grateful. 

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  • Andy Chase Cundiff

    Artist, singer-songwriter, music producer and humorist Andy Chase Cundiff spent many years traveling the U.S. and abroad, but calls Amarillo his home. A longtime resident, Andy’s house is on a red brick street in Oliver-Eakle that is lined with elm trees.

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