Just inside the front gates of the Music Academy of the West, there’s a small stand of Norfolk pines. They aren’t the most notable or imposing trees on campus, tucked as they are along the property line, but they tower nonetheless above the main drive, their branches heavy with cones.
When Fred Lehto, the Music Academy’s Buildings and Grounds Technician, planted these trees in the mid-1980s, they were considerably smaller – only six feet tall, roughly Fred’s own height. Now, more than three decades later, they’re easily forty feet tall. These trees have seen a lot of Music Academy history, but Fred, who predates them by nearly a decade, has seen more. Much more. He’s seen leadership changes, watched as the Music Academy grew into the premier summer training festival for young musicians. He’s seen what was once a field become the teaching studios of Claeyssens Hall and witnessed the renovations of Hahn Hall and the Marilyn Horne Main House. He’s heard the music of countless faculty and guest artists, generations of fellows. And all the while he’s watched those Norfolk pines grow – their presence just one physical reminder of his own immense impact on the Music Academy.
Fred Lehto’s first experience with the Music Academy of the West came in 1977. A Michigander born and raised, Fred had recently graduated from Wayne State University with a BA in Theater. He was looking to strike out into new environs but was undecided on whether to give it a go in New York or California. After discovering that a college friend had a connection in Santa Barbara, he set out for the Golden State. The connection, it turns out, was longtime Music Academy employee Alan Hughes, who, as luck would have it, was in need of an assistant for the 1977 Summer Festival. Fred Lehto answered the call. When a job as Hughes’s fulltime assistant opened up in 1978, Fred answered that call, too.
He’s been answering the call ever since. When Fred Lehto retires at the end of this month after an astonishing 43 years of employment, he’ll leave behind a record of service that is unlikely to be matched by any other employee of the Music Academy of the West. He’ll also leave behind a record as one of the most helpful, kind, and truly generous people to ever grace the Academy’s halls.