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Chilliwack teacher puts down his chalk but not his guitar

After more than 39 years, Gil Knutson, a Grade 5 teacher at Sardis elementary, is retiring.
Sardis elementary teacher

Walking into Gil Knutson's office, it was hard not to get bowled over by a wave of nostalgia.

Vintage one-piece desks, script letters, an old-school record player, even a CPR map dating back to the 1940s.

But it was the tattered yellow Duo-Tang sitting on his desk, jammed with a thick wad of papers, that most caught the eye.

Bursting with history, sheet music ranging from the 1500s, yes, the 1500s, right up to 2010.

It's that Duo-Tang that will surely be Mr. Knutson's legacy in the Chilliwack school district.

For more than 39 years, Mr. Knutson has taught Grade 5 in Chilliwack; the only school district he has ever worked for. Last week, with his Sardis elementary classroom still chock full of his teaching history, he was readying to say goodbye.

Mr. Knutson is retiring.

While his academic lessons may be forgotten, his passion for music won't be.

From the moment Mr. Knutson walked into his first class at East Chilliwack elementary in 1976, he had his guitar with him.

Singing "old fart" songs, he's introduced his younglings to Beatles classics, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Christmas tunes, foot-tapping railroad ditties, country ballads, rock anthems, and more.

"I do the shotgun approach," said Mr. Knutson, who refers to most songs by their numbered pages in the Duo-Tang. "As a teacher, you've got to do many, many, many different ones in the hope you'll turn them onto something."

Consistent favourites include Yellow Submarine, Fishn' in the Dark, Drill Ye Tarriers Drill, and one out of left field, the Star Spangled Banner.

"The boys love doing that one," said Mr. Knutson. "It's a wonderful song, but at the same time, it's so bloody hard to sing because of the range. I pretty much bulldoze my way through it."

Not to be left out though, Oh Canada, has also had plenty of play in Mr. Knutson's room.

"Most people don't know that Oh Canada has four verses," he smirks. "But my kids know all four."

Mr. Knutson fell in love with the guitar in his early 20s. He'd been waiting tables at the Lonely Guitar, a former coffee shop located in Popkum, when he heard the resident musician strumming to House of the Rising Sun.

"I was blown away," he said.

When the coffee shop owner caught wind of Mr. Knutson's interest, he told him he'd be on stage the following month.

"I was scared spitless," said Mr. Knutson. "I didn't even know how to hold a guitar, let alone play one."

But that month, he relentlessly practiced, he learned how to hold the guitar, learned the different notes and chords and finger-plucking techniques. And every weekend, for 25 years, following that first night on stage, Mr. Knutson played.

It was that work ethic he's tried to instill in his students over the years.

For nearly the entire duration of his career, Mr. Knutson has offered free guitar lessons before and after school to interested students.

He recalled one student, a girl named Erin, who for the first year and a half of lessons, could not make a go of it, but was so determined, she kept at it, refused to quit, and by the end of her second year, it finally clicked.

Now 25, Erin's still playing.

"There's nothing magic with learning to play, it just takes sheer persistence and practice," said Mr. Knutson. "Sticking with it is key."

For years, Mr. Knutson has traded off lessons with other teachers – teaching their students blocks of music, in return for them teaching his art, drama, and physical education components.

Discussing it, Mr. Knutson smiled broadly at the schedule he'd mastered over the years.

"I've managed to sucker the whole system," he laughed. "I get paid for doing something I love."

Gil Knutson's retirement party is on June 25 at Broadway Mennonite Church from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.