Aleta and Morris Collier

Aleta and Morris Collier rehearse with the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra in December 2006. Morris Collier, a longtime member of the symphony, passed away last week.

Journal Star file photo

Seven carefully embroidered words, framed and hanging for many years in the room where hundreds of students have learned to play the violin, say much about the recipient of the long-ago gift, a thank you from student to teacher.

“Sir Morris Collier,” say the carefully stitched letters. “Lord of the Strings.”

It's an apt description of Collier, who died April 23, and spent most of his 92 years playing the violin professionally and sharing his love of music with thousands of students.

The embroidered gift from three siblings who took lessons from Collier hints at the affection his students felt.

Years later, Collier and his wife Aleta played at the wedding of one of those children. Other students wrote about the influence he had on them.

“Whenever I walked through the door to your house, I never knew whether I would be getting a lesson in viola, music history, theory or all three!” wrote former Northeast student Tanner Pfieffer. “It was never just about the black spots on the white page. It was about the composer, the analysis, the context, the purpose, the intent and the history. And that has changed the way I look, think about, hear and play music.”

Born in Clinton, Oklahoma, Collier discovered his love of music — and string instruments — from a man who lost his job as a circus performer, settled in Clinton and gave music lessons.

“That’s where he learned to play the violin,” said daughter Susan Kowalski, who now lives in Albany, New York.

Music would be a part of his life from then on, accompanying him to the Navy, introducing him to his wife, making the couple mainstays in the Lincoln, Omaha and Hastings symphonies, inspiring his son and daughter.

“Just growing up, everything was about music with some art thrown in, and nature,” said his daughter.

As a young man, Collier was drafted and spent three years in the Navy, stationed in the Philippines,  where he eventually managed to get his hands on a violin, though he’d later tell his children it was held together with chicken wire.

When he got out of the Navy, he earned a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Aleta Snell was nurturing her own love of music and the violin. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took a teaching job in Scottsbluff.

Not long after, Lincoln Public Schools officials tried to recruit her to teach strings — but she was enjoying Scottsbluff too much, and turned them down.

Instead, LPS officials heard about a good musician from Oklahoma — and Morris Collier took them up on their offer. He worked in all schools, encouraging elementary-aged students to choose string instruments.

In the summer, he played in the UNL orchestra. Turns out, a Scottsbluff teacher came home for the summer and did the same.

Before long, Aleta and Morry shared a Coke at a little place called The Nook — one of the shops on campus long ago replaced by the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

“In those days,” Aleta recalled, “we had Coke dates.”

The Coke date bloomed into a 400-mile courtship and Aleta moved back to Lincoln, The two married in 1955.

For the next 52 years, the couple played together in the Lincoln and Omaha symphonies, in the Hastings Symphony and the Nebraska Chamber Players, as well as other performance groups in the region. They were half of a string quartet for many years.

Morry, who began playing with the Lincoln Symphony four years before he and Aleta married, was assistant concertmaster for 56 years. By the time the couple retired from the Lincoln Symphony in 2014, they were known as Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln Symphony.

Morry taught with Lincoln Public Schools for 17 years and co-founded the Lincoln Youth Symphony.

“He just loved kids,” Aleta said. “He had such a passion for his music, he just wanted to share it.”

After retiring from LPS, Collier taught another 17 years at Nebraska Wesleyan University and then at Seward's St. John Lutheran School, Concordia College and Kansas State University.

Throughout those years, both the Colliers taught private lessons in their home.

Both of their children are musicians, although Susan is the only one who made it her profession.

She was one of at least four of her dad’s students who went on to Eastman, one of the top music schools in the country.

When she was there, she said, she learned just what a good teacher she’d had, because her dad taught not just technique, but how to find the inspiration in music.

“He’d say to me, ‘Every note has meaning,’” Susan said. “He was a technician, but it was always in the service of the music.”

At Eastman, she said, she was surprised at how her fellow musicians competed, comparing themselves to each other, worrying they didn’t measure up.

Her dad taught her a very different mindset. His confidence in his students made them confident, she said.

"He would make you feel you could do anything,” she said. “It was all about reaching. Why not try?”

Collier, who had congestive heart failure for a number of years, began failing in recent weeks after coming down with the flu and pneumonia.

He never did stop teaching.

The day before he died, his son Ray, a musician who works at the Nebraska Supreme Court, visited with a longtime friend, a cellist.

Ray played the guitar during the visit, and his friend picked up the violin in the room.

Collier started instructing the cellist-turned-violinist, and music filled the room.

“He was teaching,” said his daughter. “As they were giving to him, he was giving to them.”

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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