The gift of music

Nine-year-old Olivia Potter was just looking for some scrap metal to finish a project for class. In the end, she ended up lifting a neighbor's spirits — and receiving an incredible gift in return.

Teacher Debbie Birdseye gave Olivia and the rest of the third-graders in her class at Jefferson Elementary a simple assignment: create something out of recycled materials. Unfortunately the Potter house was short on recyclables other than cardboard and plastic, so Olivia and her mom, Shauna, went to their neighbors to gather other recyclables.

A few houses down, they visited Jim Conklin and his wife, Joyce Sanders. The couple, both in their 80s, gave Olivia all sorts of stuff. Before the Potters left, Jim Conklin asked Olivia to come back and show him whatever she ended up making.

"I just happened to have a cardboard box with a lot of various pieces of odds and ends and electrical stuff in it," recalled Jim Conklin, who lives down the street from the Potters.

It was an old windshield wiper that inspired Olivia.

"It reminded me of a bow," she said. She decided to make a violin.

With a little help from her parents to look up a photo of a violin on the Internet, and the liberal use of duct tape, the whole project took Olivia only about two hours to complete.

"We had all the right pieces," Shauna said. "She put things in order. She's quite the artist. She has a pretty decent imagination."

Later that evening, Olivia and her mom walked back to their neighbors to show them the cardboard and plastic violin. They were impressed.

"She had very cleverly incorporated a lot of the details," Jim said. It was complete with strings fashioned from thick wires, a body made out of egg cartons and cardboard boxes. It was complete with a chin rest.

Jim asked Olivia if she played violin, and she said that she didn't, but she thought it might be fun.

"It was so touching that this little girl had this passion to build this thing, and it was something she had wanted," Jim said. "So I couldn't help but think, well, I have this viola that I never have learned to play; let her have it."

Olivia's parents recalled, "Jim said, 'Wait here a minute.' He went to the back of the house and reappeared holding a box full of stuff. Out of the box he pulled a case, unzipped it and inside was a gorgeous viola, in perfect condition."

"I was thinking about donating this, but I think you could probably use this more than me, I'd like you to have it," Jim said. He brushed aside a stunned Shauna's offer to pay for it.

"It's what's called a 16-inch viola, and it's much too large for her now, but she's getting to the age where she will be growing rapidly and she'll be able to handle it," Jim said.

Joyce gave Jim the viola in 2000, the year before they moved to Oregon from Palo Alto, Calif.

Conklin was going through yet another musical phase. He was enraptured with the viola music of William Primrose. By his own admission, he often found himself falling in love with one musical instrument then another. Over the years, he's tried harmonica, tuba, euphonium (another low brass instrument related to the tuba), clarinet, violin, viola — even a collapsible trumpet.

"I don't regret any of that," Conklin said. "But, I often feel foolish that I will get these intense passions where 'I just have to do this,' then it just gradually dies out as I realize how ignorant I am and will always be."

"Oh, Jim. You're funny," Joyce chided him.

Jim and Joyce met in 1974 and married in 1988. She's from northern Michigan, where she grew up playing violin and french horn in the school orchestra and band. He's originally from Anaheim, Calif. They've lived in Corvallis for almost 10 years.

Jim attended San Francisco State, Cal Berkeley and Stanford and has worked in a number of fields over the years starting with radio communications during World War II. He later worked for Standard Oil and PG&E. He also tried his hand at teaching.

Olivia's viola is not the first instrument Conklin's given away.

After giving up on the tuba (his band teacher told him that he had a 12-year-old girl that could put more wind through it than he could), he also gave that expensive instrument away. He's restored and sold three violins. He has a euphonium on sale for a quarter of the original price at Troubadour Music Center.

"He's quite generous," Joyce said.

"It was certainly a big moment for our little family," the Potters recalled. "Olivia was clearly a very happy little girl. We were quite moved by their gesture."

Since then, Olivia has started violin lessons with teacher Shari Ame at the Troubadour Music Center — a first step toward growing into the viola that Jim and Joyce gave her.

"It's really fun, and I like it," Olivia said. "I think I'm going to have a good time practicing with Shari."

Jim and Joyce don't expect Olivia to play violin and viola forever, but they hope that she will get some lasting lessons out of her newfound hobby.

"I hope so, it's surely nice to have people take up something at an early age and carry it through," Jim said.

"And hopefully, they'll get some enjoyment out of it," Joyce added.

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