A Life's Story
December 08, 2018
Teacher always shared the gift of music
Organist taught Winnipeg students for four decades
By Ashley Prest
Don Askholm loved nothing more than stopping by an unfamiliar church and playing a song on its organ.
A lifelong musician, choir leader and music teacher for 40 years, Askholm loved to sit down at a majestic musical instrument and light up the keyboard with a traditional hymn or lively jazz piece. His life’s work was sharing music and encouraging others to join him.
Askholm died April 9 at the age of 67, after a difficult battle with Lewy body dementia.
Kathy Askholm, Don’s wife of 41 years, said he played organs everywhere he went — in majestic cathedrals, historic chapels and even during international vacations.
“No matter where we travelled — and our kids (Jonathan, 36, and Kristine, 33) talk about this all the time — we would always stop at churches, and Don would find a way to get in, and Don would play the organ,” said Kathy, 60.
“We were in Cuba and he got in (to a local church) and played the organ. When he and I were in the south of France (in Montpellier), he did that. When you’re playing, you doodle (get absorbed in the music). He was just playing for a while, and we turned around and there were several hundred people in the sanctuary and the service was about to begin. The organist tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Um, I need to start the service.’ He had just been pulling out stops, trying different sounds and playing.”
Another time, Kathy said, Askholm’s mother went to Montreal some years ago and, when she returned, told him she had made arrangements for him to play the organ at the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica the next year, during a planned trip to Quebec. And so he did.
In the early years of their marriage, Don and Kathy would go to organ conventions in various cities for concerts, workshops and take part in “organ crawls,” where participants go from church to church to play the instruments.
The couple’s trip to France in 1981, before their children were born, was part of a larger trip which included England and various cathedrals in both countries.
“He had said (when planning the trip), ‘Let’s do this when I retire,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re doing it now’ and I’m awfully glad we did,” Kathy said.
Askholm’s illness began not long after he retired in 2006. It eventually took away his ability to play the organ or piano, but he continued to sing whenever he could.
The Christmas season was always special to Askholm, with so many choir and musical performances woven through his life. This past Christmas, just before he moved to the Poseidon Long Term Care Centre in Winnipeg, he was encouraging his home-care nurses to sing with him.
For 40 years, Askholm was an educator, music teacher and creativity leader. He taught for 11 years at Elmwood High School and 22 years at Gordon Bell High School and had shorter stays at École River Heights, Collège Béliveau, Sisler High School and Balmoral Hall. He was a gifted sight-reader of music.
His obituary noted: “Don inspired many young people to give music a try, which for some was a life-changing experience. The influence of his teaching and encouragement is a lasting gift.”
“Don believed anybody could sing, so he would stand in the hall (of schools where he taught) and recruit children to sing. It didn’t matter if they thought they could sing or couldn’t sing, he would recruit them,” Kathy said, noting Askholm was also known for his inclusion practices in his choirs.
“It wasn’t just one person who got the solos. He would spread it around to give many people a chance. He would find a way to encourage other people to try a solo, a trio or quartet and he encouraged many, many people to sing in his church choirs and his school choirs,” she said.
“He saw the best in people.”
Throughout Askholm’s four decades of teaching, he also played every Sunday as a church organist and rehearsed with the church choir one night each week. Kathy said he called in sick only one Sunday in his church career.
He took up distance running in his 40s. Each June, he ran in the Manitoba Marathon in either the half-marathon or with his children in the relay event or Super Run.
The family spent many idyllic summers at their cottage at Winnipeg Beach.
Askholm grew up with music. As a child, he was in the choir at All Saints’ Anglican Church and played the organ and piano. By age 19, he was a choir director. Kathy and Don married in 1976, not long after she met him at the former Riverview United Church (now Churchill Park).
“When he arrived, I joined the choir,” Kathy said, laughing. “He was making excellent music. And he was good looking. And young. I didn’t know if he was single or not, but I liked what he was doing with the choir. I joined, and I sang with him for over 30 years.”
The couple sang together in the choir of 500 for the opening ceremony of the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg.
At Askholm’s memorial service April 21 at All Saints’, about 70 members of his former church choirs honoured him, singing together at his service.
At a reception afterwards, a group of his former students also gathered together in song, Kathy said.
“So it was a reunion of some people who hadn’t been together for over 20 years. It brought a lot of people together,” Kathy said. “It was just a spontaneous thing, because that’s what they remembered of him.”
His memorial stone includes the word Siyahamba — the African title of a song often performed by Askholm-led choirs over the years — and a sentence from the English version of it: “Don is walking in the light of God.”
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