Everson woman's life full of family, horses and gospel singing

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 16, 2013 

Claudette Sterk

Claudette Sterk, a gospel singer from Everson, sings and plays her 1963 Martin guitar at Glen Echo Garden on Y Road on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 in Bellingham. "I can't remember when I wasn't singing," says Sterk, when asked when she first started singing.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Name: Claudette Sterk.

Age: 74.

Hometown: Everson.

Family: Husband Gerrit Sterk, 11 biological children, three stepchildren, 47 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

Longtime singer: While rearing 11 children from two previous marriages, Claudette Sterk started singing professionally more than 50 years ago. She began by singing country and western tunes, then learned how to yodel, and more than 35 years ago discovered the joy of gospel singing.

Staying sharp: Sterk, an affable, lively conversationalist, has no trouble explaining the value of singing.

"It keeps you engaged," she says. "Singing has opened so many doors in my life and has helped me meet so many friends."

A lifelong Whatcom County resident, Sterk stays active singing gospel in the choir, including solos, at her house of worship, Nooksack Valley Reformed Church. She also sings elsewhere.

"I'll be singing as long as I'm here," she says.

Yodeling bus driver: Sterk jumped at the chance to learn how to yodel even before she was a young mother.

"I first learned to yodel from a Zender girl when I was in sixth grade. I was so enchanted by yodeling that I bought a Slim Whitman record.

"Later, while I was driving school buses, I would teach the kids to yodel. I was always yodeling on the bus and I had them yodeling on the way to school! That was a lot of fun, and the kids loved it. I told them they had to help keep yodeling alive because it was a dying art."

Inspired by star: Stark was introduced to Loretta Lynn by a mutual friend when the famous country singer lived in northern Whatcom County more than 50 years ago.

"Loretta started singing at the old north-county Delta Grange. She inspired me," Sterk says. "She was as friendly as it gets. But I knew I would never want to do all the traveling she has done over the years, what with all my children."

Singing and milking: Sterk got her start singing, in part, because her mother, Dorothy Wachter St. James, was an accomplished local piano player and theater guild member.

"My dad (George St. James) was a dairy farmer who loved to sing, and when I was a girl about 10 and we were out milking cows we would listen to the Grand Ole Opry," she says. "That was where my love of old-style country music started. We would burst into song together while milking the cows.

"When I was about 12 and picking raspberries, I bought my first guitar. There was an old fellow who sang, played guitar and harmonica, and he really got me interested in singing country."

Honky-tonks: Sterk recalls singing a Kitty Wells song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," when she was a young newlywed.

"The boys in the band 'The Woodchoppers' asked me to join," she says. "I began doing paid gigs at the Red Lion (a honky-tonk-type place in Anacortes) about 1960. That was the start. I sang professionally at a lot of venues for many years."

Learned gospel singing: Sterk's fondness for gospel singing began after she met songwriter Renie Peterson, who composed both country and gospel music.

"In my church, we sang a trio of gospel songs," she says. "We began doing gospel concerts at churches more than 35 years ago, and I still absolutely love singing gospel."

Among gospel songs, Sterk has a special place in her heart for "Amazing Grace," along with "In the Garden" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

"I'm still learning about gospel songs," she says. "Really, you could say my favorite is the newest song I have learned to sing."

Huge potlucks: Sterk says her huge family is a special blessing and joy.

"A lot of them live in the area," she says. "We have some really huge potlucks at our place. Sometimes, more than 70 people are there. We just love that."

Horses, too: Sterk still takes great joy teaching her grandchildren and great-grandchildren horsemanship and riding skills.

"We live on 20 acres, with a horse boarding stable," she says. "I have especially loved teaching family members how to ride."

Famous sister: Sterk is the sister of Margo St. James, who now lives on Orcas Island and for many years was an iconic crusader for social causes in the San Francisco area.

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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