Steve Holmberg ’89 creates endowed chair in Music Department
By Sam Bishop
Two minutes into an interview, Steve Holmberg was singing.
“You’ve gotta have heart!” he crooned across the phone from his home in Washington state.
The line comes from the musical “Damn Yankees,” which UAF’s Summer Fine Arts Camp staged when Holmberg participated as a high school student in the 1970s.
Holmberg’s heart and his penchant for song have drawn him back to UAF. Now retired from a teaching career, he has created a fund to support an endowed chair for a faculty member focused on voice and choir at the Department of Music.
“I didn’t want the programs — the things that I had an opportunity to do — to not be available,” Holmberg explained.
Those opportunities led him first to UAF and then into 25 years as an elementary school music teacher in Bellevue, Washington.
Holmberg’s ability to fund an endowed chair came from making good investment choices with his wife, Cynthia, who worked at Microsoft during those same years.
That investing did quite well, and they both retired in 2015. She died of metastatic breast cancer earlier this year.
Even before her death, they had begun giving back to their alma maters. But two of the schools, both small private institutions, had been forced to close for financial reasons.
That left UAF as the sole focus of the Holmbergs’ educational philanthropy. A recently signed agreement with the UA Foundation has created the Steve and Cynthia Holmberg Choral Director Endowment, which will be funded during the coming decade. Such endowments typically require a minimum of $2.5 million to support a faculty member.
Building a career
After high school, Holmberg spent two years at UAF as a music theater major before moving to Seattle to attend and then work for the Lutheran Bible Institute. That’s where he met Cynthia.
Returning to Fairbanks in 1984, Holmberg went to work at a day care and for Grayline as a summer tour bus driver. He attended classes at UAF and earned a bachelor’s degree in music education in December 1988.
Cynthia, a business administrator by training, moved to Fairbanks in 1985. She worked at a computer store, Microage, and then at the Fairbanks North Star Borough as comptroller.
Just as Holmberg graduated with his education degree, cuts in state education funding made entry-level teaching jobs hard to find in Fairbanks. So the couple moved back to the Seattle area.
Cynthia soon found a place at Microsoft, thanks to a connection from her computer work in Fairbanks.
She ended up managing the help desk technical writing of the beta version of Windows 95.
When Microsoft began selling the software, it based the user manual on what she had compiled. More than 40 million copies were sold in the first year, back when desktop computers were far less common than today.
“So my wife was one of the most published writers in world history!” Holmberg said.
She went on to work as a management trainer in the IT department — “training computer geeks how to manage people,” Holmberg said.
Holmberg, meanwhile, based himself at Clyde Hill Elementary School while teaching music in 11 other schools as well.
“I was the guy down on the floor with the kindergartners going ‘itsy-bitsy spider,’” he said. “Your job is to expose kids to the breadth of what is out there musically in the world and hope that some of it sticks.”
Three students have gone on to become professional opera singers. Another charted on iTunes for several years. Several direct music at schools and churches.
“You know you’re making an impact with kids when they swing by the school just to say hi,” even after they are in high school or beyond, he said.
Holmberg said he wouldn’t always recognize them, given that often more than a decade had passed since they’d last met.
“I’m going ‘Hi?’ Maybe if you shaved I might have a clue,” he joked.
A foundational experience
Holmberg spent every summer at the UAF Summer Fine Arts Camp when he was in high school. It was a monthlong program of music, theater and art, much of it organized and taught by faculty from the respective UAF departments. In 1978, as a first-year student, he was a member of the Choir of the North when it toured Europe.
“UAF was foundational in who I became as a music professional and in a lot of ways in who I became as a person,” he said.
Once in his teaching career, he found UAF had prepared him well.
“In many ways, I had a broader-based education than a lot of the other music education teachers I worked with. They went through a much more linear program,” he said. But at UAF, “you could have your fingers in a lot of different pots.”
In recent years, Holmberg began to worry about whether today’s students would benefit as he had.
“I started hearing about budget cutting and the financial straits the U was in,” he said.
Given his comfortable financial situation, he decided he could do something about it. He wants the endowed chair to help sustain summer youth music programs.
“The programs that were most impactful for me were those summer-month programs in my high school days,” he said. “And that’s how you build the programs in Fairbanks. It’s why the Music Department has always had a good base of population — it’s because they had those summer programs where kids went, ‘Oh, I can go here.’”
The UAF Summer Music Academy, today’s version of the program Holmberg attended, is directed by Jaunelle Celaire, the department’s chair and professor of voice.
Celaire has known Holmberg’s parents for years, Al and Nancy, because she sometimes helps bring singers to the Fairbanks Lutheran Church, where they attend.
But she first met Steve Holmberg in 2019. He mentioned then that he would like to donate to the department. COVID-19 shut down everything soon afterward. Celaire didn’t think much about it again until she was invited to a meeting with Holmberg on campus in July 2021.
“I get to see Steve, sweet, it’s been two years, great, you know,” she said. “It never clicked until he said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to endow a chair.’”
“And then he started talking about his wife, and the tears came,” she said. “I’m sobbing like a newborn baby.”
Before the meeting, Celaire had been in the midst of directing an opera class on campus for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. She told the class she’d be right back, never expecting what was coming.
“And I come back, and my eyes are puffed out to here,” she said.
A community celebration
Holmberg will return to Fairbanks to attend a special Choir of the North recital on April 10, 2022, at 4 p.m. in the Davis Concert Hall. Planning for the event, a thank-you to UAF music scholarship donors, has unexpectedly illustrated to those involved just how close the human community can be.
Celaire said the recital was originally scheduled for April 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled it.
Sparked by Holmberg’s donation, the department revived the idea this year. Celaire asked Emerson Eads, a UAF alumnus and faculty member at Minot State University, to write a piece to celebrate the gift. Holmberg sang with Eads’ parents in Fairbanks decades ago, and Holmberg’s cousin’s husband is a former Minot president.
Eads agreed to write the music. “He said, ‘Here’s the deal, Jaunelle — I can write music until the cows come home, but I need text,” Celaire said. “I went, ‘Oh right, there’s that.’”
So, at Eads’ suggestion, Celaire asked Holmberg to name some poets that he appreciates. Among the poets Holmberg offered was a woman whose work was excerpted on a card he received after his wife died. He sent the excerpt to Celaire, who passed it to Eads.
“He said ‘I know just what I’d do with that,’” Holmberg said. “Less than two weeks later he’s got a piece of music written.”
Holmberg, in thanking the poet for allowing the use of her work, mentioned that he now attends Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington.
“She responds back, ‘Oh, if you’re at Messiah, then your new pastoral intern (the woman training to be pastor) has been the nanny for my kids for the last two years,’” Holmberg said.
Then, while talking to a neighbor who directs music for an Episcopal church in Vancouver, he mentioned the upcoming performance by the Choir of the North.
“She says, ‘Oh that’s Jaunelle’s choir. We were doctoral students back in Michigan together,’” he said.
“I’m just going ‘How small does this world get?’” he said.
That small world seems to be giving Holmberg a big hug — a much-needed and well-deserved one.
“We grieve and we mourn and we miss and we’re sad,” Celaire said. “However, we get to take this situation and this tragedy and just, like, be happy and celebrate. It truly is a celebration. I couldn’t be happier because of the number of people who are going to be brought together.”