OAKHURST — When the 21st annual Mountain Heritage Days Parade steps off on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 10 a.m., look for the one-and-only Jackie Byers sitting atop a pink Cadillac — she’s the Grand Marshall.
Jackie has been many things to many people over the course of her residency in the foothills. Mother, teacher, coach, friend, choir director, accompanist and all-around force of nature, she has enriched the lives of nearly countless individuals and organizations. Now, it’s time to cheer for her.
“Jackie Byers was chosen to be the Grand Marshal to honor her years of exceptional leadership within our community,” says Heritage Days Parade coordinator Brenda Negley. “She deserves a place of honor in our community, and what better way than in the Heritage Day Parade? We hope that those that have been touched by her involvement in the community will come to the parade to shout their thanks and encouragement as she passes by.”
From at least the time her family first moved to Pine Ridge Road nearly fifty years ago, and right through this very minute, Jackie has been making the world beautiful for those around her. The soundtrack of Jackie’s life is sung in multi-part harmony by a resonant choir. The theme of her life is connection.
It’s telling that, when you ask Jackie Byers for photographs to illustrate some of her best times, you get lots of pictures of other people taking center stage while Jackie is playing piano, back turned, or coaching off-camera. In addition to her career as a teacher, she’s among the original founders of Vision Academy of the Arts, a nonprofit organization that continues to serve the community fresh arts every season.
Originally hired in 1968 as a third-grade music teacher at Oakhurst Elementary, Jackie almost immediately found herself in the thick of good living with her children Kent and Cindy: they had wonderful friends, she says, with wonderful families at the school, a beloved staff, nonstop sports, community church, and melodramas at the community center. Can Jackie can-can? You bet she can.
In the 1970s, Jackie taught fifth, sixth and seventh grade, though not in that order. In 1974, when daughter Cindy was in sixth grade, friend Jack Geyer was working in Yosemite National Park. He began the fabled overnights in Wawona for the sixth grade class, role-playing history in an annual milestone trek students always looked forward to with great anticipation.
The fun continued as Jackie and her many cohorts over the years developed cheer squads and drill teams, performing in parades and competing at schools in the foothills and the city, alike.
As a gifted musician, among her many treasured memories is that of traveling to Europe as accompanist for the California Girls Choir. They saw seven countries in seven weeks, performing with local choirs and staying in homes of people who would become friends. Four girls from Yosemite High School sang quartets in concert: Cindy Byers, Sharon Majors, Katrina Poitras, and Laurie Colgate. Jackie’s favorite song in those days? The Rose.
From that trip, the connections Jackie made overseas continued to spread to the mountains. Choirs came from England to visit Oakhurst, where Jackie and her friends housed and fed them, and sent them to Yosemite, creating what would be decades of friendship along the way.
Before son Kent graduated from Yosemite High School in 1981, and Cindy in 1982, Jackie and others developed a community church with an organized youth group choir called Sonshine Company; they sang around the mountains and valley churches.
Meanwhile, as a concerned educator and community member, Jackie helped start Parent Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) at Oak Creek Intermediate (OCI).
The groups traveled each year to Atlanta, Orlando, Cincinnati and other cities, while learning skits, sign and songs to share in schools back home in the Central Sierra. With the objective of encouraging young people to “say no to drugs,” they were the only team in California, and performed in Anaheim when OCI received Distinguished School Award in 1981.
By the mid-eighties, a visitor from Australia by the name of Peter Quincy was mildly horrified to find that not all Oakhurst residents were familiar with his homeland. There seemed to be some confusion between Australia and Austria, Peter found.
He returned to Melbourne, called OCI and — wanting to change the local perspective on all things down under — they decided to create a pen-pal program. That led to yet another connection when Jackie and some local students flew to Australia for a 10-day visit. They stayed with families there, and attended the World Fair in Brisbane. It was only natural that this was followed by a teacher and students visiting Oakhurst in an exchange that lasted for years.
During that decade, Jackie spent her summers coaching USA cheer camps at colleges in California, Oregon and Washington. This brought more great friends, and allowed Jackie to visit her parents’ island home in Washington. Along the way, she chaperoned two Aloha Bowls in Hawaii.
Right about now, you may be thinking, “Well played, Jackie Byers!”
That includes her children Kent Byers and Cindy Donnell, friends, grandchildren Josh and Allie, and anyone who has gone through Vision Academy of the Arts summer camp. Vision Academy was formed in Oakhurst in the nineties, by Janie and Jack Geyer, Angelo Pizello, Jackie Byers and others. Meeting weekly, they planned workshops and eventually the Sierra Chamber Singers came together.
An adult community choir for men and women, the Sierra Chamber Singers can be seen at select concerts during the year and often at Christmastime for caroling.
Retirement from her teaching responsibilities did not seem to slow Jackie down, as she has continued bringing music to the schools around us.
And, along the way, Jackie has grown beauty, literally. Among the many achievements of Vision Academy’s members are untold thousands of bright daffodils they’ve planted for ions around the mountains, which faithfully pop their sunny heads up every spring.
The Vision Academy summer fine arts program, Arts Around the World, began at OCI with Lynn Stauffer running art, Carole Cayer doing drama, a variety of dance instructors, and Jackie for music.
The organization grew and, for the first time in 1994, went on to offer annual scholarships to local students. Tamara Tackett was the first recipient, awarded $500. Since then, Vision Academy of the Arts has boldly raised over $200,000 for scholarships in the arts, ear-marked for graduating high school seniors who plan on continuing their excellence in drama, dance, music, art, writing and culinary studies.
In the fall, Vision Academy will resume workshops with classes including block printing led by Gloria Garland, and a soup social which all are welcome to attend.
Jackie is the recipient of numerous awards and honors over the years, including Eastern Madera County Woman of the Year, Art Educator of the Year, and Soroptimist Woman of Distinction. Her position as Grand Marshal of the Mountain Heritage Days Parade may be the latest honor, but it’s certainly not the last.
As the motto of Vision Academy goes, “Your star shining softly on its own, but brightly when shared by others.” That’s Jackie Byers to a T. Congratulations and, yes, well played.
Mountain Heritage Days is on Saturday, Sept. 16. The parade starts at 10 a.m. and is usually staged at Yosemite High School, traveling down School Road toward Road 426. If you want to join the parade, say organizers, “Call today! You do not need an elaborate float. Your club, business, family or individuals can ride bikes, be pulled by wagons, or wear a funny costume to be part of the fun by walking or riding. All children and adult groups who want to participate are welcome!”
Mountain Heritage Day at Fresno Flats Historic Park will include demonstrations in soap carving, tatting, weaving, pine needle baskets, butter making, washboard and gold panning — all free. There’s a Pine Wood Car Race, silent auction, Docent-led tours, vendor booths, great food (including wine and cheese at 4 p.m.), musical entertainment and a Chuck Wagon-style dinner for ten bucks. Dinner includes chile, corn bread, salad and dessert. Little kids are free.