Talk Story with Fran Nestel

  • Bethany Freudenthal / The Garden Island

    Fran Nestel relaxes outside her Koloa home Friday.

  • Contributed photo

    Fran Nestel, right, and daughter Elizabeth Smith take a carriage ride in Cuba on a recent trip with Kauai Voices.

  • Contributed photo

    Fran Nestel has some flowers from her Koloa garden.

Fran Nestel continues performing with the Kauai Chorale and in Kauai Voices. She recently returned from a world singing tour to Cuba with Kauai Voices, sang a solo during the Chorale’s production of “Carmina Burana,” placed third in her category at this year’s Mokihana Festival, and dances hula.

That’s a tiring schedule.

But Nestel keeps up with it all — and she’s 79 years old.

In 1968, Nestel began her teaching career as a music teacher at Kapaa Elementary school. She eventually taught Spanish and history at Kauai High School, always making certain to incorporate music into her student’s learning experience.

In 1969, her first marriage ended, but she eventually married Brian Nestel, who was a radar technician then supervisor at the NASA station in Kokee and one of the 10 in the world to track moon shots. They were married for 43 years until he died of brain cancer in 2011.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I met my ex-husband in college, married him right away, said, “I’ll take that one. He’s intelligent, smart, he’s good,” so I married Barney Blankenship III. He’s a computer guy and so is my second husband. He was working in Arlington at Bell Helicopter and one night he came home and I was in the Fort Worth Opera Chorus and that was the height of my musical aspirations. I’d been always in choruses but my parents wouldn’t let me major in music because they said it was too expensive, so I majored in Spanish because it’s easy and minored in French, but my avocation was always in music and so I had auditioned and guess what, he had never been in choir in his life, he was in band and he auditioned with me and he got in too, which was kind of a shock. He came home and he said, “Do you want to go to Hawaii?” and I said, “Sure!” I had two little kids, I think they were like 2 and 3 when we came over.

What was life like when you first moved to Kauai?

Chemtron moved us for two months and we stayed down at Prince Kuhio and they were little lava rock cottages and my former husband wanted to learn to surf, so the bus boys down there became friendly and they loaned us a 12-foot surfboard to learn with. I just totally fell in love with the island immediately as soon as I got over here and I took all kinds of courses about Hawaiian culture, the Pacific and Polynesia and took as much as I could Hawaiian language, never enough to become fluent, but I did write a lot of Hawaiian songs because Nathan Kalama made the composers contest and he wanted people to learn Hawaiian and write Hawaiian because he didn’t get to when he was a kid. So I took Nathan very seriously.

When and why did you become a teacher?

(We divorced) so I came back and lived with his parents and drove their Volkswagen and took every class I could in elementary ed. I was certified in secondary, but I didn’t know where there was going to be a job, so I took everything I could take. So I came back and because I was single and two kids and he was going to pay child support, but it’s really not that much, you really can’t support yourself on $145 at that time. I’m not one of these people who think the guy’s going to pay for you forever. That’s ridiculous, so I’ve got to get a full-time job with the DOE teaching first my love, music at Kapaa Elementary. I just had a ball. Mr. Hashimoto was the principal. I wrote my curriculum and I had been trained by Mel Gallagher of the Kauai Chorale, how to teach students to be musically literate.

How did you teach children to be musically literate?

I was teaching children from kindergarten to third- grade, 600 children a week. They came in in groups of, I think, 30 and 60, but they had a teacher with them. So I would put tape on the floor in circles and they would sit on the tape and then the teacher’s there, they make any trouble, they’re gone, back to the room, but they didn’t want to do that because we were having fun. So I played my guitar and I even did a little hula, but I was fresh off the boat, I hadn’t been trained at all, but I had a record that showed what to do so I followed the record and it was a hula about a volcano, probably in English and I probably played the record and this cute little kid says, “Mrs. Blankenship, are you Hawaiian?” I would have them listen to all kinds of classical music like “La Mer” and then they would draw pictures and somewhere I still have the pictures they drew.

When did you start teaching Spanish and world history?

I taught music for one year. It was funded by Title IV funding and the next year it went to reading. I taught Spanish for 10 years and part of my curriculum is always singing, so I’d bring my guitar and we’d sing all kinds of Spanish songs because I figured if they sing the song, they’d probably learn about 15 to 20 words, so that was part of my curriculum. I made up games.

After about 10 years they decided to add French. Some teacher wanted to teach French and because they were adding French, I thought I’m going to have to fight, it’s not that big of a school and you already had Japanese, Hawaiian, Spanish and French also? I don’t think so. I would have to fight the French teacher for every college prep kid because that’s the only reason they would take Spanish and I thought, I’m not going to do that. So I had a certification in social studies because I took every Hawaiian culture class I could think of. If you took more credits, after 10 years they did that and I said I’m certified in social studies and I want to teach social studies. I’d already been there 10 years and so then I started teaching world history, mostly. So when I started teaching world history I did the same sort of thing I did in Spanish, but it was a while before I got it together.

I went to a cocktail party with a teacher from KCC who said by the time they get to me they don’t know anything. I was teaching them in ninth-grade and it was four years later and I thought, “How can I get them to remember what I’m teaching them?” So I started writing history songs. I had a history song for every single unit in world history. I went to Kauai High to take back a bunch of books I wanted to give them. There were two or three teachers there I knew really well and several students. I think one of the teachers was one of my students, she was old enough to be a teacher, I can’t tell nowadays, but anyway, she and another one said, “We remember your songs. I remember the World War II song.”

How did you meet your second husband?

I broke up with Barney and my friends decided that I should date. I wasn’t too interested and so my friend’s husband called me and said, “I have somebody I want you to meet. I have a siding contractor. My kids can babysit because they’re older.” I was 30, slender and I put on my black-and-white sheath and went down to meet this guy and it was at a cocktail lounge and I’m not too thrilled with meeting people at cocktail lounges, but I said, “What the heck,” but by the time I got down there, my friend’s husband said, “Oh, he flew the coop,” and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to be down here with my friend’s husband at a cocktail lounge,” and so when I came in I saw this tall guy and I said, “Oh hi, Brian.” He was the one in the cottage next to us when we moved to Kauai, and I said, “Where’s Gail?” and he said, “She ran off with a Hawaiian,” and he said, “Where’s Barney?” I said, “He ran off with a Spanish lady from California.” So then my friend’s husband and Brian took me to Steaks and Compliments and that’s how I met my second husband and again, I said, “I’ll take him,” 6-foot-4, intelligent, liked music and even liked me singing opera. It was pretty amazing.

Are you still involved with Kauai’s musical community?

I’m not doing opera anymore. I’ve been singing tenor. I was with the KCC Singers. You had to sign up for the chorus, but I wanted to do it because I love singing in choruses and it was the best on the island and I sang with Greg for quite a few years and then we got Kauai Voices. I signed up with him and we toured and all kinds of stuff. We went to Australia and England and I can’t remember if I ever got solos. With Kauai Chorale I did a lot of solos a long time ago with Lois, but anyway we started Kauai Voices and that’s what I’m doing musically. But when I got this allergy where I can’t see very well and I can’t work in the yard, my daughter came over and she said, “Mama you have to keep busy, you have to keep doing stuff,” so I joined every choir I could. I’m in Kauai Chorale and I went to “Carmina Burana.” I got to do the solo.

•••

Bethany Freudenthal can be reached at 652-7891 or bfreudenthal@thegardenisland.com

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