By Randi Bjornstad

Percussionist Guy Mayes’ childhood memories of his grandmother recall a rather stern, prim-and-proper woman who dressed fashionably, including hat, gloves and heels, but one whom he did not know especially well.Many others in the community remember the same woman — Otta Horton — as the founder of what started out as the Eugene Junior Symphony and now, 85 years later, is known as the Eugene-Springfield Youth Orchestras.

The group — along with several dozen alumni who have played with it through the decades — will perform an 85th anniversary concert on March 1 at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Eugene.

Holly Spencer, executive director of the Eugene Springfield Youth Orchestra, said one of the pieces from the first orchestra concert 85 years ago — Franz Shubert’s Unfinished Symphony — will be played again this time.

Guy Mayes may be among the the musicians.

“As far as I know, my grandmother did not play a musical instrument. But the story in my family is that back in the early 1930s, she was trying to get symphony orchestra started in Eugene,” Mayes said.

Because Eugene was not a large community back then — records show it had a population of just under 19,000 in 1930 — there were not enough local musicians to sustain a professional-grade orchestra, he said.

So, in a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, “My grandmother decided to found a junior symphony,” Mayes said. “Her idea was that training students would create a feeder orchestra for a professional-level symphony orchestra.”

It appeared to work. The group has been in existence ever since, and its archives include photographs of its very first annual concert, in January 1935.

Mayes eventually became a percussionist, but that was not really an element in his relationship with his grandmother, whom he describes as “not very warm and fuzzy, but a real mover and shaker in local political affairs.”

In fact, Mayes spent seven years, from sixth grade through high school, in the youth orchestra that his grandmother had founded, without ever knowing the connection.

“I was at the 25th anniversary concert, and there was a bunch of older people talking, and one of my friends said, ‘Hey, isn’t that your grandmother?’ “

It was, and to his surprise, during the concert Otta Horton was introduced to the audience as the founder of the group.

“I had a different perspective of my grandmother from then on,” he said. “I wish I would have gotten to know her better in that context.”

In addition to Mayes, there are scores of other alumni — students and teachers — of the 85-year-old youth orchestra still in the area, and still playing their instruments, Spencer said. She hopes, given this week’s heavy snows and power outages in the Lane County area, that both they and the music-loving community will show up to honor the nearly century-long effort.

At least a dozen current and former Eugene Symphony musicians got their start in the Eugene-Springfield area’s youth orchestras. And in fact, Spencer said, the program also provided the jumping-off point for several people who went on to create their own illustrious careers in musical performance.

Carey Bell, who graduated from South Eugene High School, became principal clarinetist with the San Francisco Symhony. Another Eugenean, Elizabeth Rowe, became principal flutist with the Boston Symphony.

As a mom, Spencer can’t resist putting in a plug for her own family musician, son Lewis Gilmore, who was part of the youth symphony program and who graduated from South Eugene High School in 2007. He went on to play with the U.S Marine Band in Washington, D.C.

Guy Mayes, who graduated from South Eugene High School in 1963, also has a military band in his past.

He grew up in the Vietnam era, and about the time he was likely to be drafted, it happened that the U.S. Marine Band was sending a contingent to do a concert in Eugene.

“I talked to a recruiter, and he arranged for me to do an audition with the Marine Band, and I was accepted,” Mayes recalled. “So I spent my four years of military obligation with the band, playing mostly throughout central and South America.”

After leaving military service and having the G.I. Bill at his disposal, Mayes attended Oregon State University, where he studied nuclear engineering and then worked as a civil engineer until his retirement several years ago.

“But I always kept music as a sideline,” Mayes said. “I played in rock ‘n’ roll, country western, and swing bands all over the place. And I have played for many years with the Corvallis Symphony — and it all started way back in the Junior Symphony.”

As for whether he’ll be on stage on March 1 for the alumni concert, it all depends on the weather.

“I live in the hills, I’ve been snowed in all week, and I have a really long driveway,” Mayes said. “But if I can get out of the driveway, I will be there.”

Eugene Springfield Youth Orchestras 85th Annual Benefit Concert

When: 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, March 1

Where: First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive St., Eugene

Admission: $25 for adults, $5 for students, children 12 years and under free; available at the door or online at

Details: Emceed by Fred Crafts; food by Cafe Soriah dessert by Oakway Catering, coffee by Full City