Three years after death, heroic teacher not forgotten
David Checketts and Heather Christensen first crossed paths as part of the University of Utah's marching band while in college. They later worked together collaborating in their musical careers following graduation. She was a woodwind instructor at American Fork High School, and he was a composer with his own music company.
Checketts and Christensen were not the best of friends, but they did share a strong connection through music. Checketts called her a "kindred spirit."
That's why he was profoundly affected by her death in a bus crash three years ago. Losing a musician he respected inspired him to compose a concert celebrating Christensen a performance titled "Transitions," which will take place Oct. 23 at the University of Utah.
"I just kind of lost it," he said on discovering the news of her death. "I can't believe this happened to someone that I know."
The community mourned the loss of the 33-year-old teacher who died when the driver of a bus carrying Christensen and 46 American Fork High School band students had a medical episode, causing the bus to veer off the road. Christensen dived for the wheel and steered the bus to safety, but fell out the window as the vehicle rolled. She was the only casualty.
The very next day, Checketts began to compose the now finished piece for this month's concert.
He wrote the solo clarinet and wind ensemble composition over a period of three years. Along the way, he considered the impact of both Christensen's life and death.
"She was the type of person who touched you," he said. "If you met her, you were touched by her."
The U. wind ensemble will be joined by the American Fork High School Band at the concert, consisting of students who knew her and even witnessed Christensen's death.
"She had such a huge impact on me and the band," said John Miller, American Fork High director of bands. "I still have a hard time believing she's not here."
Miller knew Christensen from the time she was a student at the high school. He was thrilled when she came back to teach and eventually, he said, he hoped to have Christensen replace him as band director after his retirement.
He called the concert the last hurrah for the students who had Christensen as a teacher, now juniors and seniors, a final chance for them to pay tribute to a teacher who gave so much.
"She's still a really strong part of our band," Miller said.
The night Christensen died was "tragic beyond belief," he said. The students were devastated.
The picture of Christensen on Miller's desk reminds him of her relentless positive attitude and her dedication to every student. To Christensen, the band wasn't just made up of 200 kids, it was made up of 200 individuals.
"She always put the students first," agreed Scott Hagen, director of bands and conductor of the U. wind ensemble. Hagen helped Checketts to make the concert a reality, even inviting his wife clarinetist Myroslava Hawryluk to be the soloist for the piece.
Hagen worked with Christensen while she was in the U.'s marching band, as well as in her role at American Fork High School. He was shocked when he heard of his former student's death, and he was glad to take part in a musical remembrance of Christensen. He said the music brings Christensen to mind with ease.
"For me it will be an emotional night. There's no doubt about that," Hagen said.
Checketts said "Transitions" is not a scripted biography of Christensen's life. He's not trying to tell a story or put his idea of Christensen into people's minds.
Rather, it's written to be an "oral tapestry" that invites listeners to remember the fallen teacher. "I hope as you listen to it you will experience your own memories of Heather," he said.
But, Checketts said, the most meaningful part of the night won't be the music. What will matter most is the gathering of Christensen's friends and family to remember and celebrate one life.
Concert celebrates teacher
Who • Honoring Heather Christensen, American Fork High School band teacher who died in a 2009 bus crash.
What • Clarinetist Myroslava Hawryluk will join the University of Utah Wind Ensemble to debut a composition titled "Transitions," directed by Scott Hagen and written by David Checketts.
When • Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m., at Libby Gardner Hall, 1375 East Presidents Circle in Salt Lake City.
Cost • General admission is $10, though Ute students are free and outside students can get in for $6. Seniors will pay $6.