Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 21, 2023

Sterling star

"We're late. Let's go!"

Those weren't the words I wanted to hear, but at least husband Art's pronouncement came after I returned from the bathroom, rather than before.

"Somehow I miscalculated," he said while checking the map on his phone. "We have a 67-minute trip to cover in 57 minutes."

About a week before, he told me he had a surprise and that I shouldn't accept any additional commitments. When Saturday arrived, he announced I should be ready to go by 4 p.m.

We had stopped at a Subway for a bite to eat in Salina, approximately the half-way point on our trip to Sterling, Kansas, although I didn't know our destination then. Art frequently arranges surprises for me and although I'm not a person who appreciates being thrown into the unknown, he's had a good track record of choosing things I like.

As we grabbed our leftover subs and headed for the car, he let me in on what we were doing. My job was to check our progress on my new phone - a phone activated only the day before.

His "reveal" didn't seem like anything I should be interested in. It could properly be called a retirement party for Betsy Dutton, someone I had never met. Art wasn't sure if he'd seen her once or twice, but at most, he had spent less than 30 minutes with her.

Yet occasionally, you know immediately someone is special. It might be clear by spending a few moments with them or perhaps becoming familiar with something they have done. But in rare instances, it's seeing their influence on others. In our case, we could see Betsy's influence on Janie and, in turn, Janie's influence on daughter Katie. When Katie began high school, she was going to drop choir as she said the teacher was so bad. But an early-semester course correction installed newly-graduated Janie to replace her. Katie gave Janie glowing reviews, but we figured it was a consequence of the contrast.

Then Art met Janie after being drafted to help with the sound and lights for the school play. She won the Kansas outstanding new music teacher award that year, and the choir was chosen to perform at the state music educators conference in Wichita - something unheard of for a first-year teacher.

But while Janie is extremely talented, we could tell it wasn't just her natural abilities. Her maturity meant there was another teacher behind her - a teacher who helped mold her into who she is. That teacher was Betsy.

Janie had told Art "The Betsy Bash" would feature pieces by past students, a number of whom are now professionals in related fields. Sterling has only a few more than 2,000 inhabitants. That's a pretty small talent pool, so how good could it be? But Janie, who went on to be a vocal teacher at the university, would be singing "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" - a personal favorite of ours. So we didn't know quite what to expect, but we knew it would be entertaining.

We arrived two minutes late. The auditorium was packed and the show had begun. We had to stand with the other late arrivals.

Performers did pieces from past shows Betsy had directed, interspersed with others sharing stories about how she had influenced them during their years at Sterling High School. While some were locals, others had traveled from Oregon, New York, Nashville, and other places far from central Kansas.

There was none of the nervousness I'd expected. "Tevye" convincingly delivered "If I were a Rich Man" from "Fiddler on the Roof." "Lorraine" did a wonderful job on "Fools Fall in Love" from "All Shook up." A scene from "Our Town" featured Kristen Bush, who is now a professional actor and has been featured in "The Good Wife," "Blue Bloods," and other mainstream dramas. Nicolle Galyon spoke about Betsy's influence. Wikipedia describes Galyon as "a singer, songwriter, producer, record label executive, and publishing executive" who has been credited with writing nine No. 1 hits for performers such as Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney.

Before the show, we had noticed tables filled with awards. In our haste to find the auditorium, I assumed they were out for their annual summer dusting. Not so. They were all awards her students won in drama, debate and forensics - seven state championships in debate, 27 state championships in forensics, and 74 awards in 20 different categories for music theater. She directed 80 shows over 43 years, was nominated as an outstanding director 13 times, and received nine awards for music theater direction.

When the show was over, Betsy spoke. Her voice was not that of a teacher worn by years of work, but of someone earnestly looking to the future.

It's true that Sterling, like other small towns, has few resources. Still, there are a lot of small places, and some of them will have a person who inspires others and brings out in them what they never imagined they could do. President George Bush described such people as "Points of Light" and during his presidency, he handed out "Points of Light" awards to citizens who worked to aid their communities.

It was late when we headed home. At those hours, rural Kansas roads involve few cars, a lot of stars, and much time to think. At first I was sorry I hadn't waited to interview Betsy. But no additional words were needed. In today's frenetic and divisive world, it's comforting to know there are people still investing in our children and fostering skills in them every bit as important as the "Three-Rs." Those 40-plus years said all that needed to be said.

The word "sterling" is thought to come from the word "star." So Sterling star is probably redundant. But even if I am repeating myself, Betsy is a Sterling star.

Some people have awards ... and others have awards! Inset-top (l-r): Those who came to share the moment; Betsy with some of her students on stage; she was glad to see them again, but it was hard to say "Goodbye!" Inset-bottom (l-r): Betsy with two of the cast members of her last show and their father, who was in one of her first shows 40 years earlier; Janie and one of the audience members. (Show image from Great Bend Tribune)

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