Dr. Byron Jensen, Professor of Music, is retiring from Hastings College after 19 years educating and inspiring students in Hastings, and 43 years after he first entered the world of music education. He will continue conducting the Hastings Symphony Orchestra for the coming year. This piece is written by his daughter, Hannah Jensen-Heitmann ‘15.
By Hannah Jensen-Heitmann ’15
“Only you can make your own sunshine” is a phrase that has both inspired and annoyed me my entire life.
Most school mornings as I opened the car door to enter a world full of learning, friendship and the trials of adolescence, my dad would say “remember, only you can make your own sunshine.” Depending on the day, that phrase was either met with a “thanks, love you” or an eye roll. But now, I embrace it.
Those simple words are written on sticky notes and notebooks so I can see it everyday. For me, it is a reminder of my dad’s endless optimism, and it challenges me to see everything from a different point of view.
I’ve never asked why he says it so much, but I suspect that it has served as a gentle reminder for him throughout the many stages of his life. I imagine this mantra being a pillar of hope as he navigated an uncertain childhood, the world of higher education, marriage, children, cancer, love, loss, career changes, and now, retirement.
It is unimaginable to me, but my dad has taught for 43 years. And for each of those 43 years has loved the classroom; it has been a place where he can create a bit of sunshine for his students and for himself. For both he and his students, 43 years of making sunshine seems like plenty and yet not quite enough.
My dad’s love of music, and the confidence that he could do something with it was fostered by his high school band teacher, Bill French, in Minatare, Nebraska.
He learned to play the tuba, and spent time outside of school learning the bass and guitar. He was always interested in learning, and with the support of some wonderful and dedicated educators, my dad discovered and created a life of blessings for himself and others. When sitting around the kitchen table or relishing a glass of scotch, he often reflects on his past teachers, and is so thankful for their guidance and belief in him. I think because of them, he has shown the same dedication and encouragement to his students throughout his career.
After graduating from Minatare High School in 1974, he attended Nebraska Western College (now Western Nebraska Community College) where he met his future wife and my mom, Deb. (Though she’d happily be your mom as well if you’re interested.) From there, he ventured to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley to earn a bachelor of arts in music education. Following their wedding on July 1, 1979, my parents moved to Harrisburg, Nebraska, where he spent the next five years teaching K-12 music.
Though he enjoyed his students and life in Harrisburg, the longing to continue learning and to be challenged by the rigors of academia lured him to Kansas State University, where he earned a masters and doctorate degree in music education. After becoming Dr. Byron Jensen, he embarked on his first adventure teaching in higher education at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas. Quickly, he became a leader in the classroom, in the community, and on the stage.
His days and evenings were spent in the classroom, rehearsal room and performance hall as he conducted the symphonette, jazz band, various other collegiate ensembles, and handbell choirs at both OU and Westminster Presbyterian Church. Over his 13 years at OU, he made a lasting impression on his students; many still keep in touch and make a point to visit when in the area. In fact, our back patio hosted a mini-reunion just this past summer.
In 2003, my family moved from Ottawa to Hastings, where he would spend his final 19 years in academia. He started the Hastings College Handbell Choir in 2003, and became conductor of the Hastings Symphony Orchestra in 2004. These two ensembles have the tightest grip on his heart, and he dedicates much of his time to encouraging and learning with the musicians.
My brother, Nathan Jensen ‘18 and I have been attending orchestra and handbell rehearsals and concerts since we were born, and will never tire of watching him do what he is passionate about.
In that time, we have learned how to tell when the beauty of a piece overwhelms him. There is often a moment when he is moved to tears while conducting by the wonder of the sunshine the ensemble is creating. As a musician myself, it warms my heart to see a person with such a wealth of experience still allow themselves to be vulnerable and open to the beauty of music.
Even with a full teaching schedule and several ensembles to conduct, his main priority has been and continues to be his family. My parents are and forever will be the people who show up, endlessly supporting my brother and me in everything we do. Our home has always been filled with love, compassion, creativity and, of course, music.
Growing up, our house was constantly filled with a diverse collection of music because both our parents felt it important that we learn from musicians from every corner of the world. Though they certainly made sure we knew their favorites. (I guarantee I know more about Steely Dan than anyone else of my generation.)
Through the years, my dad has guided both Nathan and me through our own musical journeys, never pushing, but always extending a hand when we need it.
Though his time in the classroom may be coming to a close, my dad will forever be a teacher. He just can’t help himself. He loves to see the light in the eyes of his students when they grasp a concept, and he relies on musical collaboration to bring life to his soul. He will always encourage and affirm the journeys of others, and will continue to make his own sunshine everywhere he goes.
May you do such and likewise for yourself and others as well.