Since the age of 4, Jean Wheeler has brought her violin along with her through each step of her life — starting with private lessons from a strict instructor to playing with the local Pacific Northwest Chamber Orchestra (PNCO). Now, 85 years later, she has decided to pass her $25,000 violin along to the next generation of musicians by donating it to Centralia College.
Wheeler and her husband, Robert, who have been married for 66 years, currently live in Napavine. They have lived in several towns across the Pacific Northwest and Wheeler would always find the local orchestra. Aside from music, she also worked as a kindergarten teacher for 48 years.
“Everywhere we went, there was an orchestra that needed a violin. In some of the small towns, I was the only violin around, so it was easy for me to find opportunities to play,” she said.
Wheeler most recently played with the Pacific Northwest Chamber Orchestra — her last show was the winter concert in 2019. She said with COVID-19 halting practices and concerts and arthritis in her hands making playing more difficult, she decided it was time for her to pass along her well-loved instrument.
“Music is a wonderful hobby. You meet the most wonderful people. In the PNCO, some of the people are extremely talented,” she said.
She began taking private lessons at the age of 8 with a strict violin teacher that expected nothing less than perfection. A stubborn child, she practiced diligently at home to get her skills up to meet her teacher’s high standards.
“To pay for my lessons, my mother did simple housework and made soufflés because my violin teacher loved soufflés,” she said. “I remember at my first lesson he looked at my fingernails and if he didn’t like the length — off they’d go. Every time I went to a lesson, I knew I wouldn’t live up to what he wanted. I put up with him until I got to high school.”
When she reached high school, she said goodbye to her violin teacher and started playing in the high school orchestra where her deep appreciation and love for playing in an orchestra first blossomed.
When the Wheelers moved to Napavine in 2001, she played her violin at church and with the Centralia College community orchestra. The Pacific Northwest Chamber Orchestra was formed in 2003 and Wheeler jumped at the opportunity to join the 12-person orchestra which has grown to about 40 members today. She acted as the concertmistress for the PNCO, making sure the orchestra was in tune before their performances.
Wheeler’s violin will be kept at Centralia College for music majors to borrow if they don’t have an instrument of their own. She hopes that her violin will help foster the love of music that has been so prominent in her life, in others.