Gloria Kiester's unquenchable wanderlust propelled her across the globe, influencing her teachings to hundreds of students in Minnesota.
Over more than three decades in music education, mostly at St. Olaf College, the longtime Northfield resident fiercely advocated for music in schools. Then, in retirement, she fought to preserve a city park.
"She packed more in her lifetime than 10 people do," said Janine Aaker of Elko New Market, one of Kiester's nieces. "She just had a great curiosity about her life. She was just a collector of knowledge; that was her hobby."
Kiester died Oct. 5 of cancer. She was 87.
Born in 1933, Kiester was the youngest of eight children to Lizzie and Adolph Kiester, dairy farmers in Fairmont, Minn. She grew up playing piano and singing, even lining up her dolls and teddy bears to play the role of teacher.
"Music was the heartbeat of her life," Aaker said.
Kiester graduated from St. Olaf in 1955 and taught in Red Wing, Albert Lea and Minneapolis. But she relished her summers when she could travel, usually on her own — from exploring castles in Germany to listening to the bells of Notre-Dame in Paris.
"She had no fear," Aaker said of Kiester's adventures as a single woman, who unapologetically never married. "She just never saw herself as a person in one place."
For two years, Kiester melded her two passions, teaching at Air Force bases in Japan and Puerto Rico and at a college in Germany. But Minnesota beckoned her back in 1967 and she landed a job at St. Olaf. Over 33 years, she taught music education, helping write the Minnesota Music Standards and a book on teaching high school music.
Linda Berger was one of her early students and said Kiester drew inspiration from her travels for her teaching, long before multicultural lessons were valued.
"She taught us nothing would happen unless students delighted in music," said Berger, who recently retired as a music professor at St. Olaf, taking over Kiester's role when she retired in 1997. "There was nothing she did halfway."
Naurine Lennox, a retired St. Olaf professor, said Kiester took pride in supervising student teachers. With no kids of her own, she "lived for her students' accomplishments."
In 1998, Kiester was inducted into the Music Educators Hall of Fame by the state Music Educators Association. In retirement, she trekked to Germany to research and write four volumes of her family's history. She was also fascinated with preserving natural history, successfully petitioning to save woods at St. Olaf from being torn down for a dormitory and writing a book about the history of land across from her house, which is now Lashbrook Park. She fought for the 11-acre plot of prairie, woodland and wetlands, helping ward off a development and archery range.
When City Council Member Erica Zweifel ran for office, Kiester gave her a tour of Northfield, relaying the city's history and, of course, that of Lashbrook Park.
"It's a place to go to be still and surround yourself in nature," Zweifel said, calling Kiester a tireless advocate.
Kiester led the Friends of Lashbrook Park, raising money for trees and park signs, even choosing the precise stones for the entrance, said Lennox, who is also on the board.
Kiester, who was born on March 4, took the date as a motto to march forth in life.
"She was an indomitable spirit," said Philip Spensley, who took over as president when Kiester stepped down just two years ago. "She never took no for an answer."
That was even so in her final days, Aaker said, adding that Kiester insisted on being at home, not a hospital, staring out her picture window framing her beloved Lashbrook Park.
Services are postponed due to COVID-19.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141