University of Kentucky professor emeritus Sara Holroyd, who will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Lexington Music Awards ceremony Sunday night at the Lyric Theatre, never let gender or age stand in the way of what she wanted to do.
First the gender gap.
As a girl, Holroyd wanted to be a doctor. “Being a doctor was not feasible at that time for a female,” said Warren Cobb, one of her former students.
She pursued her next choice: music.
Holroyd attended Peabody College in Nashville (which has since been merged into Vanderbilt University) on a work scholarship for her undergraduate degree, earned a Masters from Columbia University in New York and lacked one course in completing her doctorate from Indiana University when she came to UK in 1961. There, she was named director of choral activities and joined the ranks of “maybe four women at major universities around the country who were directors of choral activities,” she said.
With these accomplishments under her belt, after she had been at UK five years, she was eligible for tenure. She and five men applied. The men all received tenure. She was denied.
“It was the whole sexist notion that she was a woman in a man’s career path,” Cobb said. She was stunned.
In what became a well-publicized challenge to UK, Holroyd was granted tenure. She went on to be named a UK Great Teacher and received other prestigious awards.
Now, about age.
In 1987, at age 62, Holroyd took early retirement from UK to go back to her first love — medicine. She immediately enrolled in the nursing program at what was then Lexington Community College. When she graduated, she became an emergency room nurse at St. Joseph Hospital.
“I absolutely loved the ER because you never knew what was going to come in the door,” she said. Holroyd combined music with medicine, often singing to her patients to comfort them. When she left nursing full time, she continued to volunteer at the hospital well into her 70s.
Today she is a painter, selling her paintings. And she has become a computer nerd, “learning everything there is to know about Apple products,” said Renee Collins, a former student.
Holroyd is 92, turning 93 on Feb.10, and David McLean, founder of the Lexington Music Awards, said he suspects she’s the oldest local musician ever nominated in the four-year-old event.
And 31 years after leaving her academic music career, Holroyd maintains a devoted following of former students who talk about life lessons she imparted in Room 17 of the UK Fine Arts Building where she held rehearsals — hard work, discipline, treating each other with equality and compassion.
Popular Lexington singer Whit Whitaker said Holroyd was a welcomed treasure in his life as a new student at UK. Many of his Kentucky experiences until then were peppered with racism that had left him with a taste of anger, hurt and painful disdain.
“Sara treated me like I was something precious and someone important, and through her teaching and passionate resolve for music and creating relationships with the music and with the students who were part of that journey, she helped to make it possible for this young, shy but angry African-American child from inner-city Detroit to feel part of something greater, something devoid of skin color bias,” Whitaker said in an email.
Holroyd was demanding of herself and of her students in rehearsals. She was meticulous in her own musical preparation, saying, “If you’re not prepared, students know it. Students can tell a fake,” she said.
“If a student came to practice unprepared, she would tell you to leave and come back when you were prepared,” said Collins, one of Holroyd’s accompanists for four years. She said of the experience, “It was the most meaningful time of my life.”
Cobb said Holroyd “set a high bar. She was very strict. It was hard to get 18 and 19-year-old kids to study music and perform at the level she wanted us to perform.”
A milestone in Holroyd’s music career was working with Robert Shaw, the renowned conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, “whom I worshipped,” she said. Her choral groups sang with Shaw on four occasions.
“He trusted her completely. He would send her the music with his markings, and she did her thing. She would get the group ready,” said Cobb, who sang in the UK Chorale. “A couple of times we didn’t see the orchestra until an hour before the concert. One time, in Knoxville, we didn’t practice with the orchestra at all. Of course we did a lot of practice before hand, but we just went out and sang.”
In 2015 for Holroyd’s 90th birthday, Collins helped bring together 75 former students who gave a surprise concert in her honor in Room 17.
“To be honored by former students this way was very heartwarming,” Holroyd said.
Several spinoffs came out of that celebration. The Sara Holroyd Singers, a group of her former students, was formed and is up for a critic’s choice award at the awards ceremony Sunday. Room 17 Productions, also a group of former students working to preserve her legacy, has been nominated for the community service award.
“We call it Room 17 because that’s where she influenced people and changed lives,” said Cobb, a fixture on the local music scene and line producer for “Red Barn Radio.” He and Collins are co-executive directors of the non-profit. Collins is host of “Red Barn Radio” and recently started her own show, “Overtones,” on Lexington Community Radio, WLXU.
Room 17 has a website, established an oral history project in Holroyd’s name at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK and is working on a documentary and book about her life. Dozens of former students who rehearsed in Room 17 have been interviewed. Not all stayed in music. Their career paths included law, medicine, sports broadcasting, journalism, ministry and opera.
“When you talk to these people about the success they’ve had in their careers, they all come back to Sara and music,” Cobb said. “Her influence has been so great. It cuts across all career disciplines. That’s the beauty of her story. It’s that legacy that is carried on by thousands of people over a 30-year period.”
Whitaker said, “Her care and teaching showed me and other students how to love and respect the music, strong women, and ourselves, while enjoying the journey of creating.”
Holroyd said she had not been particularly aware of her influence on students.
“I just did my own thing,” she said.
As she did her own thing, countless students were watching.
Holroyd lives in a condominium downtown, drives and maintains an active lifestyle.
“I never married. I never had children,” she said, adding, with a chuckle, “I just had these millions of students.”
Beverly Fortune: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Lexington Music Awards
When: 6 p.m. Jan. 28
Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.