Retired WWU professor still has a passion for teaching

After achieving her long-held dream of singing professionally in Europe for two decades, Virginia Hunter wasn’t about to be forced into retirement. She still had to fulfill her dream of teaching college students.

Hunter, who will turn 83 on July 4, was told after only two years that she had to retire from teaching voice at the University of British Columbia because of the age requirement at the university.

Fortunately, she had options at Western Washington University. She retired last spring after 19 years and now feels honored to see a fully endowed scholarship established in her name at Western.

Hunter and her husband, Dale, will celebrate their 54th anniversary this month. They have three grown children and three grandchildren. A 1949 graduate of the University of Washington, she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in voice and vocal pedagogy, both from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She was 60 when she earned her doctorate.

Question: You seem so gratified by this scholarship.

Answer: I am. Teaching has given me so much joy — teaching students to use their voices correctly and well — and now it’s very exciting to see this endowed scholarship.

Q: How did that process develop?

A: Erin Wall, who is now with the Chicago Lyric Opera, and Rachel Roulet, our former staff accompanist at Western, were the ones who started it all. They said I should have a scholarship in my name and they did the first recital to raise money.Then Aaron Nicholson had one in 2006 and Brenna Wells had one last March. Those three have done so well — Aaron made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York last November, and Brenna is singing in Boston. Friends also held a scholarship party last July to raise funds. We want the scholarship to go to a student who intends to make music a career.

Q: It’s a good thing you didn’t give up teaching.

A: When Dale and I moved from Washington, D.C., to White Rock (B.C.) in 1987, I began working as an affiliate instructor at Western. Later, I taught at the University of British Columbia plus Trinity Western in Langley. But UBC didn’t give me a choice — I had to retire. Well, I wasn’t ready to retire and eventually I came on to teach half-time at Western.

It also led us to move to Bellingham in 1994. I’ve also taught privately and still continue to teach, and I still sing in Garden Street Methodist Church. I haven’t lost my voice! I decided to retire from teaching at Western to help Dale with his Parkinson’s disease.

Q: You didn’t get started singing in Europe until you were in your mid-30s, right?

A: I finally got my chance after Dale heard about teaching in overseas schools and wanted to try it. We went to Paris and we worked in Europe for most of the next 20 years. We raised our children in Europe and I had many opportunities to perform as a lyric soprano until I was in my mid 50s. I became fluent in French and German and also knew some Italian.

Q: What’s this about skiing when you were 80?

A: I was determined to ski past my 80th birthday, and I did. I skied Whistler and Mount Baker! Dale and I have loved the outdoors all our lives. We met while we were working at the old Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier in 1950. I was a waitress and would sing on programs for guests and he used to watch me. We have both climbed Rainier and Baker. When I was 64, we backpacked the 92-mile Wonderland Trail around Rainier.

Q: You came from an unlikely background for someone who sang with big names at festivals and operas in Europe.

A: I attended a one-room schoolhouse in Wyoming until I was 12. When we moved to Torrington (a small town near the Wyoming-Nebraska border), I started taking voice lessons from the high school principal’s wife. Sometimes that all seems like it happened in someone else’s life!