Friday, January 31, 2020

Ken Leavens (1933-2019)

Ken Leavens at the Old Orange County Courthouse (Photo by author)
I’ve just learned of the passing of Ken Leavens on May 12, 2019. It appears there was no obituary in the newspapers, nor an announcment of a service. But make no mistake,... Kenneth Sidney Leavens impacted many lives, including his countless students, his friends, and the whole Orange County historical community.

Ken Leavens was born January 26, 1933 in Ventura County. “Ken’s education started in a small rural school house (one or two rooms?) along Highway 126 in Santa Paula," writes Ken's friend, John Sorenson. "The red painted school house was still standing as a historical site when I visited Santa Paula in 2013.”

During World War II, Ken lived with his grandparents in Missouri. He later returned to California and graduated from Valencia High School in 1951.

“Ken had two sisters and a brother," said Sorenson. "His mother, Aurelia, was about twenty at the time of Ken’s birth. Aurelia lived into her late 90s in a care facility in Long Beach. His brother also resided in Long Beach. One sister lived in Santa Paula, the other in Placentia."

Interested in music from an early age, Ken graduated from Orange County State College (which later became Cal State Fullerton) with a B.A. in music in 1961. He worked his way through school,  employed at an auto parts manufacturing facility in the Fullerton area. Soon after graduating, he began his long career teaching music at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

"One of his duties was the marching band," said Sorenson, "a task he had for about twenty years. Taking additional classes, he qualified to be a history teacher for his last fifteen years. Whether he taught any music classes during this time, I just don’t know."

“Mr. Leavens was the director of the Willard Intermediate Boys' Choir,” writes Santa Ana historian Rob Richardson, who praised Ken's leadership. “He led us through some especially challenging pieces such as the choral Missa Brevis in D by Benjamin Britten.  I still have the record our choir made in 1973-74. I was a member of the choir from 1973 to 1975. [Mr. Leavens] built on the strong foundation of performing arts in the Santa Ana Unified School District for many generations.”
Ken as an Orange County State College graduate, 1961.
Ken never seemed excited to be in the limelight, but he sometimes appeared with the Willard choir in local televised performances. He also occasionally wrote letters to the editor of the Calendar or Arts section of the Los Angeles Times, sharing his insights on music. In one such letter, published Sunday, Nov. 11, 1984, Ken responded to a recent article by the Times' classical music critic Daniel Cariaga:
"Bravo!! Jeffrey Kahane [of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra] has dared to play a piano concerto that is not on the approved repertoire list of Daniel Cariaga. If you remember your 1950 freshman music history class 1-A, you know what the approved list is: the German-speaking composers, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahams. Tolerated: Schumann. All other Romantic period composers who composed for the piano have no substance. Unfortunately, 'no substance' seems to be code words for 'not chic.' Certainly, Daniel Cariaga's dismissal of Saint Saens Forth Piano Concerto as a 'mayonnaise sandwich' can hardly be taken as a scholarly analysis of a work that Paderewski and Cortot championed."
Ken retired in 1995 after more than 34 years at Willard, (although he occasionally returned as a substitute teacher). The school’s loss was the historical community’s gain. Ken becane very active in numerous historical organizations and had leadership roles in several, including the Orange County Historical Society where he served as a board member and society historian and made numerous friends.

“I met Ken while serving on the board of the Orange County Historical Society about 1995,” writes Sorenson. “Later we served on the Old Courthouse Museum Society and as members of the Santa Ana Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. … Ken and I really got to know each other as we assembled the newsletter for the Old Courthouse Society. Three times a year, we talked on many subjects.

"Ken was very devoted to music and made many visits to the Hollywood Bowl and the Segerstrom Music Hall. On one trip to the Hollywood Bowl around 2005, he broke his hip. For many weeks he was in a hospital in Hollywood. Out of respect and compassion for a friend, I made trips from Irvine to Hollywood on every Saturday to visit him in his bed. The recovery period was long and hard. Ken emerged with one leg slightly shorter than the other. He wore special shoes for the balance of his life.”  
Ken Leavens conducts 1968 Willard boys choir. (Courtesy Fred Dolan)
For years, the highlight of the Orange County Historical Society's board meetings was Ken reading his responses to historical queries from the public. He was a natural at historical research and worked hard to answer each question – even if it meant spending days driving around from institution to institution, digging through old newspapers and microfilm and paying for parking and gas on his own nickel. His dedication to getting the facts straight and helping total strangers was remarkable.

“He was still on the OCHS board when I joined it and I enjoyed speaking with him immensely,” said Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board Chair Kathie Schey. “I was saddened when he decided to hang up his hat with regard to public queries. There was much discussion about how this work he contributed could be replaced and I remember the consensus being that it simply could not. His passing is another real loss to the history community.”

As a board member, Ken was always even-tempered, friendly, intelligent, and a voice of reason. It was impossible not to like the man. Health problems mostly kept him at home in the last few years and his presence has already been greatly missed. Now, unfortunately, we’ll be missing him in perpetuity.

Ken passed away in the same Fullerton home he’d lived in since 1956. “Ken was a very private person and his death was a sudden event even to his siblings,” writes Sorenson.  

Farewell and thank you for all you've done, Ken.


Tom Pickett said...

So sorry to hear of the passing of Ken Leavens. I served with him on the Board of the Old Courthouse Historical Society and always enjoyed his observations and humor.

Tom Pickett said...

Sorry, I meant Old Courthouse Museum Society

Jhill8 said...

Sorry to see him go. He was a very good customer of mine since 2007. He stopped responding in august 2018 to my phone calls. No obituary or anything. I almost called for a wellness check. Rest In Peace Ken. Thank you Tom for your efforts.

Bill D said...

I sang in the Willard Boys Choir, 1964-1967. This is a fond memory. While moving recently, I came across a 33" L/P vinyl that the choir had made, probably 1965. Perfect condition, and how odd to hear the choir from my youth. Great, great experience, and Ken taught all of us a lot about all kinds of music.

Harlan L said...

I also was a member of the Willard Boys Choir while in junior high and also have the 33" LP we recorded during that time.

Chris Jepsen said...

Cameron Dall just responded via email:

"I just ran across your blog about the passing of Mr. Leavens. I have thought about him so many times in the past few years because I became a band director and he was my first glimpse into playing in a band in 6th grade in 1974-75.

"I remember Mr. Leavens as the band director for one year at Willard - 1974-75. Then he taught only choir at Willard after that. Great teacher. I remember on one occasion that he showed Laurel and Hardy films in the band room from his personal collection. From what I also remember, he collected 78rpm records of the "Six Brown Brothers" a group of 6 saxophone players from the 1920s

"Just a few remembrances of him. Thanks for telling us a little bit about him."

Thanks for sharing your memories, Cameron.

Chris Jepsen said...

David Kurrasch just emailed me his comments on this blog post:
". . . He was a rare talent for a Jr. High choir instructor. Very passionate in his work. We used to love the times when he would bring in Laurel and Hardy films . . .

"I was in the Willard Boy's Choir in 1970-1971. Mr. Leavens was passionate about what he did, and he brought out EXCELLENCE in our performance. Giuseppe Verdi ("Repentir", a.k.a. O Divine Redeemer) was a song we learned and performed. Only in adulthood did I realize how special it was that a Jr. High Choir would perform such a song! I am looking to produce that song again with the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael's Abbey.... Thanks for sharing your passion with us, Mr. Leavens. God rest your soul.

"In the picture of the Choir, I recognize Mark Wallengren (radio host of KOST 103 with Kim Amidon). He is 6th from the right, front row, with glasses.

"Thanks again for sharing. Made my day."