Walenta gift boosts WSU symphony, students

12:43:17 PM CDT - Friday, February 25, 2005

By Shannon Littlejohn

The search for a conductor for the WSU Symphony Orchestra received a major boost, as did student string performances, with the Walenta family's recent gift of $500,000 to the College of Fine Arts.

Made in Ann Walenta's memory, the gift endows a Faculty of Distinction professorship and student scholarship support for the Ann Walenta Quartet.

"What we hope to do is to get someone who has a national reputation as an orchestra conductor," said Rodney Miller, dean of the College of Fine Arts, "but also one who has a national reputation in music education one who can connect the whole program to the students and to the community."

Miller said the search will get under way next year; he'd like to see someone in place by fall 2006.
The quartet is for student performers, said Miller, and will include a cello, a viola and two violins. Auditions will be held every year for the quartet, he said, and the most gifted students will be chosen for the honor of playing.

"We are deliberately not limiting it to just undergraduate or just graduate students," he said.

The $500,000 gift is the Walenta family's way of honoring Ann Walenta's legacy as a Wichita Symphony Orchestra cellist and music teacher whose connections not only to local arts but the larger Wichita community ran deep. Her murder, a random victimization in 2000 by brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr, marked the beginning of a crime spree that ended days later when the Carrs killed four others and were apprehended by police the following day.

In 2000, the Kansas Legislature established the Kansas Partnership for Faculty Distinction program to encourage gifts by private donors to establish professorships to attract and keep top-notch faculty. Through the program, the state annually matches income from gifts of more than $350,000 given to WSU for the endowed professorships. WSU now has eight such professorship funds, with this gift and that from the estates of Katherine and Edith Erker.

After the gift was announced, Miller was moved to write a commentary about the meaning of the gift. "Arts education cheaper than prison," published by The Wichita Eagle on Feb. 16, told the story of Don and Ann Walenta raising their children and contributing to civic life. He went on to make the point that cutting the arts in public schools could be far more costly in prison time down the line.

"Two men sit on death row, their lives ruined because they ruined so many others," Miller wrote. "I wonder what was missing to make them so vicious. I wonder if either of them ever painted a picture or sang in a choir. I wonder if they ever had a teacher, like Ann Walenta, who showed them the discipline necessary to read a page of music or determine lines of perspective, thereby unlocking the fulfillment that comes with such accomplishments."

At the news conference announcing the gift, Walenta's husband, Don, and two children, Suzanne and Jeffrey, presented a united, and poignant, front.

Suzanne Walenta recalled that her mother loved to teach. She wants to see her mother's legacy grow.

"If you start with one person, it can grow," she said of the gifts. "It will grow a love of music, a love of the arts."

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