“Elvera Voth – risk taker extraordinaire!” Thus read the headline in the International Journal of Music. And what a risk taker she has been.
Her musical training began in Goessel, Kansas where she was born and raised. In college and graduate school she earned degrees in music and choral conducting. A series of academic appointments followed one after another: Freeman Junior College, Bethel College and Alaska Community College in Anchorage.
When we look beyond these basic details, a highly complex persona emerges. Early in her academic career she campaigned for equal pay for equal work. After a series of intense conversations with administrators, these academic institutions eventually adopted such a policy.
But Ms. Voth was a dynamo that could not be confined to a classroom. In Alaska she was the founding director for the Anchorage Community Chorus, the annual Basic Bach Festival with the guest conductor Robert Shaw, the Anchorage Lyric Opera and the Anchorage Boys Choir. Each summer she organized and conducted an outdoor choral festival with the theme “Music to Match Our Mountains.” The Anchorage Symphony Performing Arts Center recently named their rehearsal rooms and performance spaces the Elvera Voth Hall.
She organized the campaign to have the Alaska legislature earmark 1% of all state income tax revenues for the arts. Her efforts benefited all the arts programs across many cultures and communities in Alaska.
In 1991 Elvera announced her retirement but according to observers, her major contribution was just beginning. She became the choral conductor and vocal instructor for the East Hill and West Hill singers in Lansing, Kansas. East Hill and West Hill are the names for the minimum and maximum security wings of the Kansas State Penitentiary. Although she had many skeptics at the beginning, it became a full-fledged arts program behind the walls of the Kansas Penitentiary. The Wichita Eagle headlined this venture, “Helping Music Find Lost Souls.”
Within a few years, her choral groups were performing in communities across Kansas. When the conductor Robert Shaw heard of this project he came to Bethel College in Kansas and conducted a benefit concert to raise funds for Voth’s music in prisons programs. Mary Cohen writing for the International Journal of Choral Singing stated, “Shaw and Voth shared a passion for social justice and musical excellence and the belief that choral singing could be a vehicle to transform lives and prompt social change.”
Elvera expanded the program to include other arts: poetry, theatre and photography. At one time well over half of the prisoners in the Penitentiary were in one arts program or another. Due to declining health, she concluded her prison work in 2010.
In 2014 she was elected to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. When a reporter asked why, why spend your retirement years working with society’s cast-aways, she replied, “I just didn’t want to give them one more failure in life. Why keep everybody at arm’s length? They are coming home sooner or later. Do you want them to come back with hate in their eyes or hope in their hearts?”
Leader: Surely the Lord would say of Elvera Voth
All: Well done thou good and faithful servant.
The Living Mirror: Archaeology of Our Faith