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Barbara McElroy was in elementary school when her mother taught her an octave on an antique pump organ. That was more than 50 years and many musical achievements ago, but McElroy still remembers the lesson.

Since that notable moment, music has been a fixture in her life. McElroy is so highly regarded for her musical contributions and leadership in Sonoma Valley that the city’s Cultural and Fine Arts Commission selected her as Sonoma’s honorary Treasure Artist for 2018.

“It’s a true honor,” said McElroy, 67. “I look at the list of people who’ve been honored before and it’s nice company to keep.”

That list includes author M.F.K. Fisher, cartoonist Linus Maurer, artist Stanley Mouse and Sebastiani Theatre proprietors, performers and instructors Roger and Diana Rhoten. Last year’s Treasure Artist Peter Hansen is a filmmaker and Sonoma Valley High School teacher who directs the school’s Media Arts Program.

The award was established in 1983 to recognize outstanding achievement in the performing, visual, musical, literary and theater arts.

‘Rarely takes the spotlight’

This year’s award pays tribute to McElroy’s work as a public school music teacher, a conductor with various community groups, and a singer and musician with a mastery of nearly every instrument.

“I don’t play the zither very well,” McElroy said, laughing. “As a music teacher you need to learn to play everything, some better than others.”

She was nominated for the award by Linda Goudey, a longtime associate of McElroy’s with the Sonoma Valley Chorale, and by Antoinette J. Kuhry and Linda Rawls, both former Treasure Artists who consider McElroy’s talents inspiring.

They list McElroy’s achievements in education as well as her work as a local musician and conductor, with membership in the Chorale since 1976. McElroy currently serves as associate conductor and accompanist and also performs and sings with the group.

The Chorale, a nonaudition adult community chorus, honored McElroy in 2015 as one of its “greatest treasures.” Goudey, who has known McElroy through the schools and the Chorale for nearly 40 years, credits her as someone who “rarely takes the spotlight, but is always there, willingly doing what is necessary to help others to make wonderful music for our community.”

Additionally, McElroy serves as director of music at Presbyterian Church of the Roses in Santa Rosa, where she plays with the bell choir and sings.

Tough times

The Treasure Artist recognition comes at a tough time for McElroy, who lost her Glen Ellen home and family ranch during October’s firestorms. One of her three horses, a 28-year-old mare, later died from complications from the fire.

The flames destroyed the many instruments she’d collected during her long musical career. Only a French horn remains, an instrument she’d left in her church office.

The retired Sonoma Valley High School music director will be honored Tuesday at a reception in Sonoma, with several of her former students performing.

‘A positive influence’

McElroy was hired as a music teacher in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District in 1975. She taught music at five district elementary schools, Altimira Middle School and many years at the high school before retiring in 2011. Grammy-recognized music producer Nick Phillips is among her former students.

“I loved going to work. We always had a great time together,” she said of her long career teaching high school students. “My goal was to be a positive influence.”

She led students to state and national awards and oversaw music trips to Canada, England, Florida, New York City and throughout California. Students often returned from competitions with silver or gold awards, spirit awards and “bests” as music departments or instrumental and vocal groups.

Many students went on to pursue careers in music; others sing and perform in community groups or bands. Former student Jeff Peterson is an accomplished composer scheduled to honor McElroy at this week’s reception. Singers Shannon Howlett and Elizabeth Robertson also are planning to perform for their former teacher.

On the high school’s Facebook page celebrating McElroy’s accomplishments, former students describe her as a favorite teacher, “simply the best,” “amazing,” “knowledgeable,” “memorable” and “wonderful.”

Anonymous honor

Among the numerous personal awards and tributes McElroy has received was one that remains anonymous.

In 2001, a former student listed her as “the high school teacher who had the greatest impact on the life of a beginning student.” The honor was presented through UC Santa Barbara, but McElroy has no idea which student selected her.

“I saw that and it was, ‘Whoa.’ It made my day,” she said.

Her recognitions in education include district exemplar, teacher of the year and outstanding director. She’s been recognized by the California State Senate and the California State Legislature, but considers her students’ successes among her greatest achievements.

Many of the trophies and awards earned throughout the years were destroyed by the fires. She’s just grateful she and her husband and pets found a rental home in Sonoma, and that her two other horses, a stallion and a mare, are safe in boarding facilities.

Passion for horse-riding

A longtime equestrian, McElroy attended rural Chico State University knowing she could board her horse nearby. After graduating in 1967 from Analy High School in Sebastopol, she studied music at Chico; at that time her minor in agriculture was considered unusual for a woman.

Much has changed since those days, but McElroy’s love of music remains steady. If she’s not teaching, performing or conducting, friends just might find her listening to a favorite artist. She’s a fan of “everything from country music to classical,” with equal appreciation for fiddles and violins.

Music, she said, “is one of the constants that’s gone through my entire life.”

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