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Salvation Army gave composer his start

Just as the sun was setting in Lexington last night, Shawn E. Okpebholo was in Cincinnati watching a world-famous euphonium virtuoso, Steven Mead, perform a concerto Okpebholo had written for the concluding celebration of the International Tuba Euphonium Association's weeklong conference.

It was only natural.

The euphonium is a brass instrument that is an integral part of Salvation Army bands. And it was at the Salvation Army in Lexington that Okpebholo (O-peb-o-lo) discovered his love of music and his talent for composing it.

”From a very young age — I started taking lessons when I was 8 — I loved making music,“ Okpebholo, 27, said. ”It was fun. It brought out the creativity in me. I have always wanted to be a musician.“

The stars might have aligned for Okpebholo ­without the Salvation Army and his tutor, acclaimed composer and ­conductor James Curnow, but fortunately, they didn't have to.

And the Salvation Army, as is its mission, proved a lifeline for the entire Okpebholo family.

This story starts with the appearance of a bus at the public housing complex on Pimlico Parkway gathering children and taking them to Vacation Bible School at the Salvation Army Center on West Main Street.

Mary Okpebholo, 49, recalls her three ­children asking her to allow them to go. A friend persuaded her to allow it. As a divorced single mother who was very protective of her children, Mary Okpebholo wanted more for them than she had had herself.

She grew up in foster care and had always dreamed of her role in a two-parent family unit.

That didn't work out. She divorced rather than follow her husband back to Africa. Still, she didn't want her children to be hurt by that decision.

”God gave me these kids, so it is my responsibility to raise them,“ she said. ”I realized I couldn't do it on my own. I needed God's help.“

After the Vacation Bible School experience, the family received mailings from the Salvation Army about youth groups and other activities. A youth program intrigued her, so she gathered her children, boarded the bus, and headed for the center.

The leader of the program wasn't as impressive at first glance, however.

”She was harsh, and I said, "I'm not leaving my children with this woman.' So I stayed,“ she said.

The same woman later invited her and her family to a Palm Sunday service at the Salvation Army, ”and I've been here ever since.“

Mary Okpebholo eventually became a part-time laundress for the shelter and eventually, the shelter's ­manager, a position she has held for 12 years.

Her three children became active in the church's Youth Brass Band, taking lessons and participating in competitions throughout the country. Her son won most of his.

Shawn Okpebholo, who played the baritone, wrote his first song when he was 8 years old, and won a contest in third grade for a song he wrote.

He wrote a piece for horn and piano that was performed one Sunday during the giving of church offering. A fellow church member, Curnow, then a music professor at Asbury College, noticed Shawn's talent and asked if he would like to take lessons with him.

Okpebholo said yes.

”I have had many different teachers,“ he said, ”but he brought out the creativity in me.“

So much so that after graduating from Tates Creek High School, Okpebholo ­followed Curnow to Asbury.

”We were taught to take advantage of everything,“ he said. ”Don't take anything for granted. I tell young people I just worked hard and took advantage of opportunities.

”I know people that had the same opportunity as us, that started out doing what we did, but dropped out,“ he said. ”And they are still living in the same place where they grew up.“

From Asbury, he won a scholarship and teaching ­assistantship to Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he earned a master's degree and doctorate.

Throughout that time, he performed and composed for several organizations including the Air Force Band and the Ohio All-state Band. His compositions have been ­performed in 26 states, Africa and Europe.

This summer he is leaving a teaching position at Northern Kentucky University for one that is on track for tenure at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

”I love teaching, and that is the way to go if you want to have a professional career,“ Okpebholo said, adding that he'd prefer to teach either kindergarten or college.

Where did he get his talent?

Mary Okpebholo laughed. It wasn't from her or Shawn's father, she said. Maybe from her biological mother from whom she was separated at birth. She has heard she was musically inclined. She doesn't know for sure.

”It bothered me coming up, but after a while I got to the point I had to live,“ she said. ”I wasn't dumped somewhere. Things happen for a reason.“

All three of her children are college graduates.

Shawnetta Okpebholo, Shawn's twin sister, works at the Salvation Army, too, and Shericka, 25, lives in Louisville, where she received her master's from the University of Louisville. Both girls graduated from Transylvania University.

Mary Okpebholo hasn't forgotten whence she came, however. She has a 10-year-old foster daughter she plans to adopt, and her older daughter, Shawnetta, is a foster parent as well.

”I have been blessed,“ Mary Okpebholo said. ”I know on Judgment Day the Lord will say "well done.'“

Shawn Okpebholo thinks God will, too. He credits his mother and God for his success.

”She is not a musician at all,“ he said, ”but I got my work ethic from her. She was very strict in a good way, and made us all work hard. She didn't settle for all right or mediocrity.

”The great thing about Mom is, I had a really happy childhood, even though we were poor. We had what we needed and we had great ­support,“ he said.