Homer’s ‘creative heart’ dies

“If you had to summarize the arts in Homer, two words: Mary Epperson,” retired Homer High School teacher Mark Robinson said on Mary Epperson Day, a big celebration of her life at the Homer Council on the Arts In June 2014.

Called the “creative heart of Homer,” Epperson, 93, died after a short illness about 3 p.m. Monday at South Peninsula Hospital. Friends and family fulfilled a promise they made to her when she went into the hospital: She would not die alone, and she would die surrounded by love.

“I dubbed her ‘the patron saint of the arts in Homer,’” said Joy Steward, executive director of the Homer Foundation, one of many arts and charitable organizations Epperson helped found. “She was just the grandmother of the arts, basically,” said Janet Bowen, who knew Epperson from when Bowen was director of the Homer Council of the Arts and Epperson was on the board.

Born June 6, 1922, in Los Angeles, Maria Laura Espinosa was the daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico. She went to Catholic school and was taught by nuns. Her father decided Epperson needed to learn to play the piano at a young age.

“She was introduced to the piano, and that became inborn to her. That was her life’s dream,” said her daughter, Terry Harrington, of Anchor Point. “Later, all she wanted to do was teach — not just teach, but give education to people.”

Epperson met her husband, Jack, at the Standard Rubber Factory in Los Angeles during World War II. They married in 1945. With their two children, Terry and Dean, they moved to the lower Kenai Peninsula in 1954. 

They homesteaded in Happy Valley, Ninilchik and eventually on Epperson Knob on the North Fork, Anchor Point, before moving closer to town on West Hill Road.

“She had like two different lives here. She had the life of a homesteading woman, and then when the kids were grown up, she shifted and became much more involved in the community,” said her friend, Ken Castner.

Epperson worked for the city of Homer from its incorporation in April 1964, eventually becoming city treasurer for 18 years. It was as a piano teacher, though, that Epperson became best known. She had taught from home and in 1982 bought a little building next to what’s now the Homer Council on the Arts backing up to Woodard Creek on Pioneer Avenue. At Etude Studio, with a methodology of dedication tempered with praise, she taught generations of students.

Writer Dan Coyle interviewed Epperson for his book about how people learn and the masters who teach them, “The Talent Code.” Epperson was like other master coaches Coyle wrote about. She showed compassion and love to her students and gave little instructions in short bursts.

Bowen saw that is how Epperson taught Bowen’s daughters, Maddy and Molly.

“Her incredible patience with students,” was how Epperson should be remembered, Bowen said. “I watched her repeatedly say to my girls, ‘That was great. Let’s do it again’ — with a smile on her face.”

“She imparted such common-sense knowledge. All the research that comes out for brain research, she knew that. She knew that inherently,” said Carol Comfort, a fellow piano teacher who shared her studio.

Comfort was part of a second generation of music teachers Epperson helped foster. Also working in her studio was Eric Fenger. Born and raised in Homer, Fenger taught guitar at Etude for eight years in the 1990s. 

“I did learn a lot from her,” he said. “We had a lot of common ground in the discipline that is practicing.”

After Fenger left to get his doctorate in composition and returned to Homer, Epperson encouraged him to stay in Homer and begin teaching. He’s now building his own music and recording studio.

“She said, ‘Please go back to teaching. The community really needs you.’ That was really nice,” Fenger said.

Beyond her teaching, Epperson influenced the arts and education as what she called a “pusher” — a person who encouraged people to volunteer and participate. 

“She was a big networker. She had her tendrils in everything,” Comfort said. “I think she was a genius at connecting people together.”

Steward, who met Epperson the first day she arrived in 1985, said Epperson had been involved in the various incarnations of HCOA as the organization grew and changed. A former HCOA director, Steward knew Epperson when she was HCOA treasurer. Epperson kept meticulous ledgers.

“I will remember her as a friend, a mentor,” Steward said. “My whole professional career is tied to having Mary and her support and her accounting ability.”

Epperson also volunteered with Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and Pier One Theatre. At Etude, Epperson recruited musicians. Her first question to any stranger walking through the door was “What instrument do you play?” If you said a string instrument, she steered you to the orchestra, said Laura Norton, KPO manager. Epperson organized the orchestra and was its bookkeeper for 30 years.

For Pier One, Epperson sold tickets at Etude or at the booth, something she did for 20 years.

“She would also offer her opinion on whether or not the show was suitable for people who showed up, including my three children who knew every word of the play because they had been at rehearsal,” Norton said.

In education, Epperson proved to be the biggest supporter of the budding Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College. KBC director Carol Swartz credited Epperson with encouraging her to apply for the position. In 2011, Epperson won the University of Alaska Meritorious Service Award.

“While she may be small in stature, she has been a giant when it comes to making the needs of KBC known,” Swartz said at the ceremony presenting her the award.

Harrington said her people found her mother easy to talk to.

“If you had any problems, you went to my mom. Before you knew it, you were telling her all this stuff,” she said.

“The thing that she had a knack for, it was like you felt she was your biggest fan and you were the only person she was a fan of,” Comfort said.

“She always had that utmost concern for other people,” Bowen said. “She was always asking ‘How is it going for you? How can I help you?’”

“I dearly loved Mary,” Norton said. “She had a lot of love for people.”

“Everybody loved her and she loved everybody,” Castner said.

Epperson was preceded in death by her husband of 70 years, Jack Epperson, her grandson, Shane Harrington, and her son-in-law, Stan Harrington.

She is survived by her daughter, Terry Harrington of Anchor Point; her son and daughter-in-law, Dean and Cindy Epperson of Anchorage; grandchildren, Shanna Baxter and Heath Harrington of Anchor Point and Heidi McLay of Anchorage; 14 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren. Terry Harrington said services are planned for June at a time and place to be announced.

The Kachemak Bay Campus had earlier established the Mary Epperson Endowed Student Support and Scholarship Fund, which as of February had raised $25,000.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.