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Sonja Holbert, KCK educator with passion for music, dies

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Sonja Holbert smiles in this provided photo. She worked for nearly 30 years as an educator, specializing in helping children with special needs.

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Between the walls of the ramshackle three-bedroom home where Sonja Holbert grew up shoulder to shoulder with her seven siblings, there seemed to be an ever-present hum of music.

The plucking of a fiddle or the clanging of spoons in the hands of her father, Clyde Thierry, a French-African American man raised on the joyful folk of Louisiana in the 1900’s. The careful pressing of piano keys by one of her sisters taking a lesson, motivated by Clyde and his belief they have the “finest things in life.” The endless symphony of strings practice — because every sibling, once they reached grade school, was to learn to play the violin. Even if the family didn’t have the money for an indoor bathroom that year.

Clyde and his wife, Ella Mae Thierry, of Kansas City, Kansas, wanted their children to have an appreciation for the art and culture of the world despite the economic hardships they faced, surviving family members said. Holbert, the third-born child, took to classical music.

She became proficient with the violin and then moved on to the cello, viola and flute. Her operatic singing voice, bursting out of her small frame, helped her to land solos in their junior church choir over her sisters. She listened intently to the works of Russian men with long, vowel-filled names like Sergei Rachmaninoff and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

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Sonja Holbert sits at the piano as a child. Her father instilled in her a passion for classical music. Submitted

As she grew into adulthood and found her calling as a special needs educator in Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, her love of classical music would come through when she would pull up YouTube clips for her students of artists like Jacqueline Du Pre, a British cellist famous in the 1970’s.

She would do the same with her family, springing videos on them at get-togethers, swelling up with emotion at the music that brought her back home.

“To be honest with you, I’m not really a classical fan that much, so I would sit patiently and listen,” her daughter Collin Thomas recalled over the phone with a laugh. “But her eyes would just close and she would say, ‘Oh my God, listen to this part. It’s beautiful.’”

A little more than a week ago, her grandson, Creston Herron, grabbed his violin and boarded a flight from Houston to Kansas City amid her failing health. Holbert had been fighting leukemia for the better part of a year and a half, exceeding the doctors’ initial projections of four to six months, Thomas said. But it caught up with her, all of a sudden, and the family knew it was time.

Herron had taken up the violin in part because of his grandmother, who paid for his lessons. He sat at his grandmother’s bedside on the morning of Dec. 22 and played some of her favorites — “Danny Boy,” an old family jig, a selection from the Johann Sebastian Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas.

That afternoon, almost as if she had been waiting for his arrival, she died. She was 82.

Her loss has been felt across Kansas City by family, friends and others who knew her as a patient and caring teacher, serving a population with developmental disabilities. She would tell her students “this is a quarter and this is a dime,” Thomas said; the next day, she would tell them the same thing. Kindergarten students of hers would remember her years later and reconnect.

In Holbert’s personal life, she was outspoken about what she believed, in the past calling out politicians like former President Donald Trump for comments she felt were reminiscent of another era in her life. She would tell her daughters how she had to sit upstairs at the local Princess Theater as a girl, not downstairs with the white patrons.

She had a wide-ranging taste in art and popular culture — able to quote a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; a song by her favorite opera singer, Marilyn Horn; or episodes of “Dark Shadows,” “The Twilight Zone” and, after the 1990’s, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” She decorated cakes with intricate detail, sewed Halloween costumes and had a large collection of dolls. Family members say she also could drive with a lead foot.

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Sonja Holbert puts the finishing touches on a cake. Family say she had a knack for decorating cakes and would make them for her relatives. Submitted

Her life story, coming of age in an era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, is one of finding joy in artistic expression in the face of oppression. Her younger sister, Sharon Buckner, 80, said it was their parents who instilled that sense of curiosity in them, exposing their children to a world far beyond their block.

“And a lot of people don’t know that,” said Buckner, a Golden Valley, Minnesota resident. “They look on the Black community and they lump everybody into one category.”

Born on July 12, 1939, Holbert was named for the Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie — pronounced Son-ya — whom Clyde had seen in movies. It was the first of many indications Holbert’s life would be filled with art.

Their home was located at the corner of Sherman and George avenues, across the highway from their elementary school. They walked to school together, Buckner recalls, and their parents were deeply involved in their education. Their father, a carpenter by trade, fixed up violins for the school so his kids could use them. He knew how to carve the edges, re-string them, varnish them with oil.

The siblings would play different instruments around their house, and their mother, a teacher, would listen to them and assess where they were strongest. Then she and Clyde would pay for lessons on that instrument.

Their father believed classical music — “proper” music, as he called it — could lead to a good life.

“He was a country boy,” Buckner said. “In his day — in the teens and 20s — people didn’t have opportunities to study, and the schools probably didn’t even have music programs where he grew up in Oklahoma.”

When Holbert went to the University of Kansas to study education, she continued her passion for classical music by attending the free classical music concerts put on by orchestra students, Thomas said. And she kept trying to learn new things about music as an adult, taking piano and voice lessons.

She met her husband, Dr. Lelond Lemmon Holbert, when she was one of his patients, and the two fell in love and had two daughters, Collin Thomas and Courtney Wells. Holbert was able to give her children a life she never had, Thomas said — with a spacious home where they could have their own rooms. She hosted family gatherings every chance she got, from pool parties in the summer to Christmas celebrations in the winter.

After she retired from her nearly 30-year teaching career, she continued to find purpose through her family, taking on the role of the sibling who keeps everyone together. She would organize parties, send gifts in the mail and talk to her sisters on the phone for hours.

Daphne Payne, her 86-year-old sister who lives in Lawrence, had a birthday on December 11. Her daughter was hosting a party, Payne said, and Holbert came even though she was feeling poorly with her worsening leukemia.

“You know what she said? ‘Oh no, I’m coming, I’m coming,’” Payne said. “She knew I liked fruitcakes so she ordered a fruitcake for Christmas for me.”

Payne savors the moments they had together when she was hospitalized in recent months. Sometimes, Holbert would get to leave to see her sister, and Payne would have some of her favorite foods ready — Popeyes, her homemade potato salad and thin green beans. It was a welcome diversion from her time in the hospital.

Reflecting on those recent times, Payne said, “I’m just gonna really — golly jee — miss her.”

Thomas feels thankful that at least, on her mother’s final day, her grandson got to play her the music she loved.

She feels confident it got through to her.

“You always wonder, ‘Do people hear you when they’re in those last stages of their life?’” Thomas said. “We really felt like she heard it and she enjoyed it.”

She’s survived by her daughters, Wells and Thomas; sisters, Payne, Buckner, Melanie Prince, Stephanie McIntosh and Sondra Solish; brother John Thierry; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Other remembrances

Versa Ashley

Versa Ashley, a Wyandotte County election worker of more than 20 years known to do anything to lift the moods of her loved ones, died early on Dec. 21, family said in an obituary, shared by Thatcher Funeral Home. She was 92.

Born on Dec. 6, 1929, Ashley grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, where she was a member of the Walnut Boulevard Missionary Baptist Church. She attended Sumner High School and after she graduated in 1947, was the secretary emeritus in charge of organizing all of their class records. In 2007, Ashley was awarded by her class with the Above and Beyond the Call of Duty award.

She had a reputation for going above and beyond with her family, too; when she would hear someone was sick, family said, she would always send them a card packed with inspirational sayings, jokes and at least a couple of dollars. She would answer the phone by saying, “Happy (insert day of the week).” She ended every call by saying “I love you.”

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Versa Ashley smiles for a photo. She was an election worker with Wyandotte County for 20 years before her health started to decline. Submitted

She worked for her uncle’s catering business for 15 years, serving clientele in the Kansas City area, she said.

For 20 years, she was an election worker in Wyandotte County, taking on roles like judge and supervising judge. She did this until her health started to decline.

Her philosophy, family said, was, “Why complain? As long as you wake up each morning, it is a blessing.”

She’s survived by her daughters, Annetta Dombrowski and Sharon Davenport; brother George Lee; and nephews, nieces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lynne Brown

Lynne Brown, a medical coder who liked to dress with impeccable style and sing with the choir during church, died Dec. 21, family said in an obituary on the Serenity Funeral Home website. She was 59.

Born on November 11, 1962, Brown was raised in Kansas City, Missouri. She graduated from Southwest High School in 1981, family said, and then got her degree from Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas. Her dream was to work in the medical field.

She did that, family said, by serving as a medical coder at Swope Ridge Nursing Home and St. Luke’s Hospital. The job of a medical coder is to transform complicated healthcare information into universally understood codes.

Though she never had children of her own, she was known to act as a mother to her nieces, nephews and cousins, taking them on fun outings with her. She showed everyone the importance of self-love in the way she dressed, family said; her hair was always done, nails were pedicured and makeup was fresh.

She went to the Community Praise Workshop and World Outreach Center and loved to sing with the praise and worship team, family said. She also taught Sunday school, family said, and helped formerly incarcerated people find work through the church’s career center.

She was also ordained as a minister in 2009.

She’s survived by her brothers, Tracy Brown, Teddy Johnson, Timothy Johnson and Terrance Johnson; sister, Alise Bowman; and nephews and a niece.

Michael Sampson Sr.

Michael Sampson Sr., an Army veteran described as a family man and a loving friend with a passion for driving, died early on Dec. 19, family said in a Serenity Funeral Home obituary. He was 60.

Sampson was born on Jan. 18, 1961 in Kansas City, Missouri, where he went through school, family said. After he graduated from high school in 1979, he enlisted in the Army, and within three years was married.

His job with the Army took him and his family all over the world — from Korea to Germany to California and Texas. He was honorably discharged in 1993 and settled back in Kansas City.

He was known among his family to host cookouts with dominoes, music and lots of meat on the grill, according to the obituary. He would talk to his relatives on the phone for hours. Sampson, family said, was a regular part of their routines.

Also, family said, he loved to drive, whether it was cars, 18-wheelers or construction equipment. He drove from coast to coast in the U.S. on multiple occasions, family said. He tried to teach those around him about driving safety.

He got married this past year, on August 21, to Dena Sampson.

He’s survived by his wife; his children, Danny Littlejohn, Mikah Sisson and Michael Sampson Jr.; his siblings, Willie Sampson, Deborah Edison, Gwendolyn Sampson, Cynthia Scott and Theresa Harris; six nieces; five nephews; 22 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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