For four decades at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Ken Staton was simply “The Maestro.”
The retired music educator and conductor died Saturday in suburban Denver, where he lived. He was 83.
Born in Miami, Okla., Kenneth Wayne Staton brought a wealth of professional and life experience when he came to UH-Hilo in 1973, having been a U.S. Army Russian linguist and music instructor at the University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Staton laid the foundation for much of the music the local community enjoys today, as founder of the Repertory Singers at UH-Hilo — akin to the current Kapili Choir — the Hilo Community Chorus and UH-Hilo Symphony Orchestra.
He also conducted the Kona Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, taking them on international tours of China and Scandinavia.
Staton’s wife, Celeste — a dancer, choreographer and dance instructor — described him as “a leader.”
“He led with intelligence and humor, and he had a very kind heart,” she said. “His diversity in what he liked, and what he could get across through his players in the orchestra or his singers was a strength. His range of likes went from country music to opera. He thought Willie Nelson’s voice was great, and Johnny Cash.”
A trombonist and tenor vocalist, Staton’s diverse musical tastes were displayed in the concerts he presented at UH-Hilo.
He conducted “Messiah” as part of the university’s annual holiday concerts, also presenting an array of secular carols and pop music and audience sing-alongs. UH-Hilo’s first-ever instrumental-only concert, under his baton, bore the intriguing title “Classics, Crooks and Heroes.”
Staton widened the school’s arts and entertainment education horizon by hiring Jackie Pualani Johnson to teach drama in 1979.
“He put me through a test first. He had me direct ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors.’ I was very hapai, and this was my first born,” Johnson recalled. “He was checking to see if I knew my stuff. It was really fun. And ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ is about the three kings coming to visit the baby Jesus. And I thought, ‘My kid is going to be the baby Jesus, if we aren’t careful.’ It was very funny.”
And a success, as well. Staton played the role of Kaspar, one of the kings. He also starred as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the title character in “Sweeney Todd” at UH-Hilo, as well as Emile de Becque in Aloha Theatre’s production of “South Pacific.”
One of Staton’s students, Michael Springer, a composer and conductor, was the state Department of Education’s Teacher of the Year in 2000, and also taught at Kamehameha Schools-Hawaii before retiring.
“He believed in nurturing the raw talent that he saw in people. He encouraged by role-modeling and offering his perspective and ideas to help others grow professionally,” Springer said. “As a conductor and educator, he understood what efforts and inroads were required to produce successful concerts and programs.
“Yet, he always admitted to not having all the answers, being wise enough to admit that and motivated to seek the answers.”
Services are scheduled for Monday in Colorado. For info, visit www.newcomerdenver.com. A local memorial is being planned for a later date.
In addition to his wife, Staton is survived by his children: Geoff Staton, Jonathan (Gina) Staton and Meridith Staton; stepchildren, Morgan Cloud and Heather Cloud; Katherine Tetsuko Conner, Tomiko Conner and Jai Conner; sister, Gladys Saenz; and granddaughters, Oralia Staton and Alexandra Staton.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.