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Teacher

04/09/08 7:55AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education. He also teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School, and today he offers an appreciation of one of his own favorite teachers.  

(MARTIN) You may have noticed, or heard from people who live around here, that there are a lot of sad guitar players in Chittenden County right now. That's because we've just lost the legendary guitar teacher Walt Keith, and, since he taught many of us our first chords, we've missed him dearly since he passed on last month at the age of 92.

When I turned 14, my parents told me I had to learn an instrument or join chorus, so a few weeks later I started guitar lessons with Walt at his house on White Street in South Burlington. I remember Walt would always greet you loudly at the door, slap you on the back, and crack several jokes before you could sit down for the lesson. At the time, I didn't know what to make of Walt because he was a hep cat, and we hadn't seen too many of those in Vermont back then. He wore slacks and a wide-collared shirt open a few buttons, and he'd say, "Yeah, man!" quite a bit. Before he came to Vermont, Walt played jazz guitar in big bands out on the West Coast, so it took us several years to catch up and realize how cool he was.

I just wanted to learn the Beatles and the Stones, and Walt would teach me what I wanted, but he'd always stop and say, "You'll see. When you get further on, you'll want to get into the real stuff, like Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, and Django Reinhardt." When he talked about Django, the 3-fingered Gypsy prodigy who was the fastest and most beautiful guitar player who ever lived, I always figured Walt was exaggerating. But years later, looking back, I know now that everything Walt said was true.

I guess Walt always shared the truth with the young people he met, and he taught hundreds of young Vermonters. At least once, during each lesson, Walt would say, "I don't smoke, I don't drink, and I don't take drugs, and you don't need any of that junk to be a good musician."

The other thing about Walt is that he loved his wife dearly. When Vera would stir the marinara sauce in the kitchen behind us, and the good smells would start coming out, Walt would usually get a little romantic and talk about how lucky he was to be married to the prettiest gal and best cook for over 40 years! It was something to see Walt, well into his sixties, just flirting with his wife like it was nobody's business. And Vera would blush and say, "Oh, Walt, you stop that right now!"

We all miss Walt now because he was such a swinging guitar player, such an excellent teacher, and such a beautiful guy. But we're happy to think of him in a place where his students always practice before their lessons, and Django's on the radio, and Vera's making spaghetti, and none of the young people ever try drugs.
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