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  • Renee Collins Cobb

The Heroic Career Story of Dr. Sara Holroyd: "Tis a Gift to Be Simple"​

Written By Renee Collins Cobb, M.Ed. and Warren Cobb, B.A.

Renee Collins-Cobb interviewing Dr. Sara Holroyd at The University of Kentucky Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History

INTRODUCTION: The Sara Holroyd Oral History Project resides at The University of Kentucky Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. In 2017, many of these stories along with corresponding research at The University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Library were utilized as our basis for requesting an honorary doctorate be awarded to Professor Emeritus Sara Holroyd. Some of these interviewees are pictured below: Marty Singleton, Whit Whitaker, Dr. Sara Holroyd, Dr. Jeff Johnson, Dean Phelps, Martha Bassett, Vince Dimartino, Melissa Turner, Barbara Bailey and Dr. Harry Clarke.

As a result, Professor Sara Holroyd became Dr. Sara Holroyd on May 4, 2018 when she was presented an Honorary Doctor of Arts by President Eli Capilouto. Here is her story as captured by Renee Collins Cobb and Warren Cobb, two of her former students and Executive Directors of Room 17 Productions, Inc - a 501c3 that promotes music education in Kentucky through live performance, storytelling, oral history and preservations of aging recordings to digital format. The name "Room 17 Productions" was selected by Warren and Renee to describe those students whose careers later realized that had their origins and were "produced" initially in classroom 17 in the University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts.

"Oh the beautiful treasures laid up by the wise - how precious the value, how glorious the prize" ---Shaker Hymn

University of Kentucky Professor Emeritus Dr. Sara Holroyd, who is 95 years old, is a retired music educator and ER nurse from Lexington, Kentucky who had her humble beginnings in the segregated city of Selma, Alabama during the 1940s. She originally had a dream of becoming a doctor, but during times of great change in this country, and with the women's liberation movement to come many years after her collegiate experience, it was unheard of for a woman to enter a career field- like medicine- dominated by men. After working her own way through Vanderbilt’s George Peabody College for Teachers, she returned to Alabama to become a high school choir and band director, and perhaps even more remarkable- after successful pursuit of her graduate work at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Indiana University- her academic career journeyed through several successful career progressions eventually becoming one of only two female collegiate choral conductors in the entire United States during her tenure at The University of Kentucky.

Professor Emeritus Dr. Sara Holroyd held the positions of Professor of Music Education, Director of The Madrigal Singers, Women’s Glee Club, Chorus, Choristers Choral and Director of Choral Activities at the University of Kentucky School of Music from 1961-1987. 1987 was not the end of her career story but only the beginning of a new journey to accomplish her original goal of working in the medical profession.

Even more impressive in 1987, she retired at age 62 and IMMEDIATELY entered nursing school at Lexington Community College. She would later become an ER nurse on the 3rd shift at age 64 and worked at St Joseph Hospital in Lexington KY until she retired a second time at age 71.

As previously mentioned, prior to her careers at UK and St Joseph Hospital, she was a high school band and choral director in Alabama. Sara was a trailblazer in both the high school and collegiate ranks due to the rarity of women in these occupations that made UK Professor Holroyd’s entry into the collegiate ranks as one of only two females leading choral programs in the United States even more remarkable.

That achievement had to be fought for on many levels and did not come without great personal sacrifice. During the era Sara made teaching her career choice, it was believed by many that women either had a career or a family - but never both.

From the time she graduated high school to being hired at The University of Kentucky, Sara had never had to apply for a single job during her long career. Each job post she was offered or recruited for was based upon her previous successes and merits alone. Former Director of The University of Kentucky School of Music, Dr. Bernard Fitzgerald asked Sara to come to campus while she was working on her Ph.D at Indiana University. She postponed her doctoral studies and joined the faculty in 1961 as an Assistant Professor of Music Education. She was tasked with teaching music education, directing the intramural Women’s Glee Club, and directing The Madrigal Singers. At the time of her hiring, Sara signed a contract stating that her position was permanent if services were satisfactory and that continuous tenure should be expected after a maximum of 5 years. At that time, there was no requirement by the University of Kentucky to have a doctoral degree in order to obtain tenure.

Soon after her arrival in 1961, Professor Holroyd sensed an early resistance to a young unmarried female being in the job of teaching music education at UK. Most faculty on staff at the time were married male applied instrumental or vocal teachers specializing in one musical instrument or voice. Music educators were not considered as important or valuable in academia as those teaching applied music. To gain credibility, she decided to give an applied vocal recital to her fellow faculty that was also open to the public. She received rave reviews, not only from her fellow professors, but also from the Lexington Herald-Leader’s music critic.

In 1966, after Professor Holroyd had received five continuous years of pay increases, was highly recommended for promotion and placed on tenure track at The University of Kentucky, a new policy informally referred to as “publish or perish” was implemented by then University President John Oswald. She watched anxiously as all of her fellow male colleagues were granted tenure by the Committee on Privilege and Tenure. She eagerly awaited the same status update. When she received no update on her own status, she asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences when she would receive the tenure she was promised upon accepting her position at The University of Kentucky. ] The Dean of Arts And Sciences told her that she would not be given tenure because she did not have a doctorate. She informed the Dean that she was only 12 hours short of her doctorate (which she had taken a break from to care for her ailing mother over the summer) and that none of the other six men who were granted tenure had any hours towards their doctorate.

Dr. Donald Ivey and Phyliss Jenness, both tenured professors, immediately lent their support and helped craft a strategy that would ultimately pave the way for her to remain at The University of Kentucky. Dr. Ivey and Phyliss Jenness called out the tenure policies and The Committee on Privilege and Tenure in The Kentucky Kernel. Dr. Ivey wrote a full page article to inform the public why this was wrong and Ms. Jenness wrote a “Letter To The Editor” describing the effort of dismissing Sara Holroyd as being “frightening”.

Despite the courageous efforts to support Professor Holroyd in this highly publicized case, which put their own careers at risk, Dr. Ivey and Ms. Jenness were unable to stop the news that was to come. Professor Holroyd was soon visited in her The University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts "Room 17" by the Director of The School of Music, to inform her in front of her entire Glee Club, that she was to be dismissed in one year because the tenure rules stated she had to either receive tenure or be dismissed as a professor altogether. Professor Holroyd confidently announced to her Glee Club students that “she would win this”.

The local media picked up on this story, students across the UK campus protested, the UK Law School weighed in on the tenure policy, the AAUP, i.e. American Association of University of Professors, watched the case carefully, and a hard fight to remain relevant in a sea of men who were receiving tenure without the required credentials Professor Holroyd was told she needed to keep her job, had begun.

After four long months of public debate and internal assessment, the decision to reinstate Professor Holroyd was successful in her efforts to provide the data and basis needed for the recommendation to be made by the Board of Trustees and The Committee on Privilege and Tenure.

One of the many positive outcomes of this challenge produced a landmark appeals process for faculty, which did not exist prior to her battle, was created so that others who may in the future face the same challenges would be treated fairly.

Although Professor Holroyd was finally granted tenure and a professorship in 1966, her title as Assistant Professor did not change. Nor did she receive the appropriate pay that her tenure should have provided. It would be another 7 years before she received an official promotion to Associate Professor. After years of being under compensated, in 1980, she was promoted to Full Professor with tenure.

After her 1966 reinstatement, Sara received many prestigious awards: The UK Alumni Association Great Teacher Award, Delta Zeta Woman of the Year Award, and Outstanding Woman Faculty Member by the Association of Women Students.

In 1998, she won the Carl A. Lampert Award, which inducted her into the UK School of Music Hall of Fame. In 2015, a “Tribute To Sara Holroyd” was produced by UK and Room 17 Productions, Inc,, reuniting many of her students from three decades of teaching to sing selections highlighting the music of Kentucky from “A Shaker Worship Service” and “My Old Kentucky Home”.

In January of 2018, the same year she would be awarded her honorary doctorate, she was honored at the Lexington Music Awards for Lifetime Achievement.

"Tis a gift to be simple, Tis a gift to be free, Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be" ---Shaker Hymn

As a result of overcoming the tenure challenge, Professor Holroyd became an advocate for so many others, including her students with disabilities, aspiring female choral conductors and for her patients at St Joseph over a 37 year period of high school and university level teaching plus the remaining years in her career as a nurse. Her faculty papers were donated to the UK Special Collections and Research Center and The Sara Holroyd Oral History Project resides in the UK Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. Both facilities hold memories, stories, and live recording performances of some of her many accomplishments and collaborations including:

Her collaboration of work from 1973-1982 with famed Atlanta Symphony Conductor, Robert Shaw, who on four occasions selected Sara to prepare the choir for his arrival into Lexington for some ambitious performances. Shaw told the local media that upon his first arrival to Lexington that “never before had he worked with a choir so well prepared”

"Never before have I worked with a choir so well prepared" ---Robert Shaw

In 1977, Sara who was now the Director of Choral Activities, in an effort to recruit the best of Kentucky high school choral talent to the UK masterminded a television production of her beloved and always well-received Christmas concerts. “A Gift Of Music”, a performance combining all three of her choral groups and the University of Kentucky Orchestra and the help of UK President Otis Singletary as a narrator of this landmark film taped at UK’s Memorial Hall and aired statewide on WLEX and KET.

"I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, ye bow like the willow tree" ---Shaker Hymn

In 1979, a landmark film was made at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, KY which featured Sara’s University of Kentucky Choristers performing a re-enactment of Salli Terri’s “A Shaker Worship Service” which aired on KET many times in the 1980’s. Soon after filming, “The Music of The Shakers” LP was recorded in 1981 and captured the sounds of Shaker music and showcased the incredible vocal talent that further catapulted Sara’s amazing gift at choral conducting and production to a national and now global audience.

From the years 1973-1983, Professor Holroyd collaborated with Kentucky composer, John Jacob Niles, on several concerts honoring and performing his works for audiences around the world to enjoy.

"I've heard my music sung before, but never with the warmth and affection The University of Kentucky Choristers brought to last Saturday's Performance" --John Jacob Niles

Sara Holroyd was also responsible for raising the money to bring her highly esteemed University of Chorale's talent to the holidays as they presented The Madrigal Dinners each and every year from 1978-1986. These dinners were always well attended, sold-out and a Lexington Holiday Fan Favorite.

After retiring from the University of Kentucky, chasing a long desired career goal of working in the medical field, Sara was equipped and empowered to combine both of her skillsets in music and medicine to comfort, calm and heal patients and families during times of great personal stress. This career move was much publicized and Sara was a common contributor to the A-OK Radio Show.

Room 17 was the exact location in the UK Fine Arts Building where, for 26 years Professor Holroyd taught, inspired and changed the lives of thousands of students who studied music and voice under the direction of her baton. Many of these former students, now known as “Room 17 Productions” since their career was “produced” in “Room 17” reunited on September 26, 2015 to perform once more for their beloved 90 year old professor in a tribute concert secretly organized by UK School of Music Alums, Renee Collins and Warren Cobb, masterminded to honor Professor Holroyd’s role in their professional and personal lives.

Each alumni credits her in some way for helping ignite the desire to succeed and be the best in their chosen profession. We have filmed several of Sara’s students telling of the tremendous impact she had on their lives and careers.

This sanctuary of music education proved to be the springboard that launched many future successful professional careers in not only music, but in a variety of fields including law, medicine, communications, pastoral, K-12 education, piano pedagogy, information technology, sports broadcasting, psychology, higher education, military services, art, theater, real estate, authors, songwriters, publishing, opera, and recording artists.

Many stories of her female students and fellow female faculty who have went on to have marvelous careers in many disciplines and who all attribute their success in their careers and inspiration gained from being under the baton of Professor Sara Holroyd.

Famed Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart once said “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

We, being Warren Cobb and Renee Collins, Executive Directors of Room 17 Productions, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization promoting music education through oral history, preservation and live performance, strongly believed Professor Emeritus Sara Holroyd’s body of work and the course of her life journey truly exemplifies in professional, intellectual and artistic achievement. One visit to our website, will highlight her significant values, principles and contributions to society as well as to the great state of Kentucky and this wonderful University. As a result, we formally requested the awarding of an honorary doctoral degree to University of Kentucky Professor Emeritus Sara Holroyd. The nomination was approved by The Board of Directors in February 2018 and on May 4, 2018, Professor Sara Holroyd became Dr. Sara Holroyd.

"All who will may come and share the glories of this jubilee" ----Shaker Hymn

The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky is recognized around the world as a leader and innovator in the collection and preservation of oral histories. The more than 13,000 oral history interviews in our collection provide a unique look into Kentucky, American, and global histories and represent a valuable resource for researchers. The Nunn Center engages individuals and communities by recording their stories and providing innovative archival access to those interviews. You can access SPOKEdb, our online catalog/repository at

Renee Collins Cobb, M.Ed. is the former host of NPR's “Red Barn Radio”, and Lexington Community Radio’s radio shows/podcasts “Overtones”, “Gray Matters” and “Listen Locally Open Mic Night at The Twisted Cork”. In addition, she is also the President of Collins Consulting Group, LLC, and co-owner with Warren Cobb of Listen Locally, LLC and the 501c3 non-profit organization, Room 17 Productions.

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