Cal Poly CLA News

The latest online edition of CLA's Impact Magazine

Thank You for the Music

Family and friends remember John Russell with a scholarship endowment.

John Russell

Professor Emeritus John Russell joined Cal Poly’s music faculty in 1968, teaching music theory, piano and voice until 2005. He independently created the College Singers in 1969, Cal Poly’s first vocal ensemble including both male and female voices, and co-founded San Luis Obispo’s Mozart Festival in 1971. In 1996, Russell was awarded the Cal Poly Distinguished Teaching Award. He also served as chair from 1996 to 1999, leading the music department with a quiet attention to detail and a willingness to listen.


Russell was soft-spoken yet had a natural ability to connect with students on a personal level and inspired a long-lasting love of music in many. He was highly esteemed by colleagues and students, and beloved by his wife, Carol, and two children, Kelly Trost and Bryan Russell. After he passed away in 2019, Carol, Emeritus Music Professor Clif Swanson, and former students Gary Rust and Karen Worcester (Biological Sciences, ’92) established the John Russell Scholarship Endowment. Their goal is to support future generations of music students in pursuing their passions, as Russell had supported so many.


With many others adding their support, the John Russell Scholarship Endowment surpassed the initial fundraising goal of $25,000, with an ew goal set for $50,000. The fund will remain open for new gifts so that anyone wishing to honor Russell's memory may contribute. Just as John Russell quietly made a difference in so many lives, these gifts — both large and small — will make a difference for many students for years to come.


Bryan Russell Kelly Trost
From left: The Russells' son, Bryan, and daughter, Kelly Trost


Below, some of the endowment's supporters share memories.


“John had the ability to really connect with his students. Except for time with his family, he was happiest in the classroom. He spent exceptional amounts of time with his students, and his office door was always open if a student needed additional help. He was able to inspire and encourage his students to strive to reach higher expectations of themselves.” —Carol Russell

“I remember first meeting John in the halls of the music building, probably during my first week of college as a 17-year-old. I had been practicing my flute, and he stopped to talk to me. I mentioned I had sung in high school, though I wasn’t enrolled in choir at Cal Poly. He reached out and invited me to join the University Singers. I was shy, and something about the way he did that opened that door for me that day, and singing in his choir may have been one of the most cherished experiences of my life. He saw my potential long before I did!” —Karen Worcester, former University Singers vocalist and orchestra flutist

"John was a lot of fun to be with. He was curious about everything imaginable, and to be his friend was an ever unfolding series of explorations of everything from learning to play the piano, studying theory and composition, hiking, swimming, rock fishing, music-listening, learning about Chumash Indians, reading and philosophizing about the nature of things." — Gary Rust, former student



“John set a level of quality that I don’t think has ever been exceeded. He was a phenomenal conductor and set very high standards. He would record every rehearsal and take it home to take notes on what could be made better. His choruses were at a professional level. He specialized in picking people with clear voices and blending them.” —Clif Swanson

"He taught me to approach music and life with passion and love. He helped me overcome fear and believe in myself as a musician, and consequently, as a young adult." — Karen Worcester

"In addition to an 'analyzed' approach to life outlined above, in his later years, John seemed to have found an ability to be utterly content with the simpler things in life. He shared a deep and abiding love with Carol, Kelly and Bryan, he loved going for walks, sitting in the garden, the company of good friends, his pets, carnivorous plants, beautiful weather, playing the piano and living in San Luis Obispo. To be content in life is a huge success. His contentment serves to inspire me to seek the same, although I'm still somewhere on the path towards that goal." — Gary Rust



"I had sung in high school and before, but being in the University Singers was a life changing experience for me. We sang ancient music in the settings where they most belonged (the California missions) and the sound in those spaces created some of the most intensely spiritual moments of my life. It also brought me a sense of community that I have cherished my whole life.  I loved John, I loved the music we made, and I loved that choir as a family." — Karen Worcester

"John was a deep and complex person. He was a composer of fine contemporary classical music. His analytic nature always forced him and those around him to understand the integral elements of music and composition that eventually became part of the whole. Every aspect of his life was touched by this approach.  My friendship with him taught me to be similarly analytical about music and life. I often think life would be easier lived on the surface, and I suppose John might have endorsed that sentiment, but as Socrates is alleged to have said: 'The unexamined life is not worth living.'" — Gary Rust



“It was John’s fondest wish to leave a scholarship endowment for future music students. After he passed away, several students and friends asked about making donations in his name. Clif Swanson was instrumental in organizing and helping to create an endowment in John’s name. I know it would have made John very happy to know that the endowment is now possible.” —Carol Russell



“The seeds for my own devotion to music were all planted in the music department at Cal Poly. In the late ’70s, the department didn’t offer a major, but the professors, including John, Clif Swanson, Ron Ratcliffe and Bill Johnson, were passionate educators who knew exactly how to provide very high-level musical experiences that have informed every aspect of my life that followed. I have traveled the world hearing music everywhere, and my own tastes and interests all stem from these early experiences. It is my hope that the endowment will give similar opportunities to present and future students, that may touch their lives in such deep and enduring ways. I can think of no better way to honor John’s legacy than ongoing scholarship to support lives filled with the study of music.” —Gary Rust

"When Clif mentioned the endowment he and others were hoping to found, I flashed back to remembering his delightful smile. I wanted to be a part of this." —Linda Halisky, former CLA Dean


John and Carol Russell
Professor Emeritus John Russell and his wife, Carol.



"John had the ability to really connect with his students. Except for time with his family, he was happiest in the classroom. ...He was able to inspire and encourage his students to strive to reach higher expectations of themselves.”


—Carol Russell




To support John Russell's legacy, give online.

To learn more about the John Russell Scholarship Endowment, contact Debi Schwartz at


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