After over 30 years of teaching music and psychology at Sierra Nevada College, Donna Axton has retired from what is now known as the Tahoe campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. 

“She was amazing; she is one of those people who is just a shining light,” said June Sylvester Saraceno, director of the low residency Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at the university, who worked with Donna for three decades. “She could change the atmosphere of the room just by being there. She was beloved by all.”

Donna was raised in upstate New York, where she learned music from her father. After college she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to teach math in middle school. With two years of teaching under her belt, she visited her brother, Bill Roberts, in the Tahoe area in the summer of 1976.

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CHRISTMAS CAROLERS: Donna Axton serves as director of the North Tahoe Community Choir, pictured at a choral performance this past Christmas season. Courtesy photo

“At that point, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted it caught on fire,” Donna recalled. Needless to say, Tahoe looked like a better alternative. So, she packed her car with everything she owned and moved to Tahoe City, where she worked as a housekeeper and in restaurants — until her brother gave her a piano. Thus began her musical career. 

Donna began playing at Lakehouse Pizza and other venues around Tahoe, focusing on the music of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and similar folk stars of the 1970s. One night while playing, she was approached by Hoyt Axton, a famous country singer, song writer, and actor, who had a home in the area.

“Hoyt said he was looking for a piano player for his band — but he was really looking for me,” Donna said. She joined the band, and it was initially a dream come true as they toured the country. 

The band was promoted by Hoyt’s mother, Mae Borne Axton, a public relations maven extraordinaire in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Mae wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley and played an integral part of the success of the King of Rock and Roll. Willie Nelson also credited her as a key factor in his career. While Donna was in Hoyt’s band, Mae’s promotional skills meant they starred on a long list of TV shows, including a number of appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

SINGALONG: Although she is retiring from teaching at the university, Donna Axton will continue to share her musical prowess with members of the North Tahoe Community Choir, pictured here at a recent practice with Axton on the piano. Photo by Jared Alden

Hoyt and Donna married in 1979 and their son, Matthew Axton, was born in 1982. By 1989, the couple had gone their separate ways, with Hoyt heading to Montana and Donna staying in North Tahoe teaching music. She became the piano accompanist and then the director for the Sierra Nevada College Choir. In 2022, the University of Nevada ended the music program, but Donna is still directing the now independent North Tahoe Community Choir. The choir has specialized in Christmas presentations as well as springtime classical concerts. 

In addition to directing the choir, Donna began teaching psychology classes at SNC in 1999 and continued teaching both psychology and music at the school for the next 25 years. “I really loved teaching counseling classes, working with students who were interested in being counselors or therapists,” she said.

She was also the go-to piano accompanist for the Tahoe Symphony Orchestra’s Toccata musical performances and tickled the ivories for North Tahoe High School productions. She even composed the music for the Sierra Nevada College graduation song written by her friend, Saraceno.

If it had to do with music, Donna was ready to take it on. She co-wrote a musical production of Dante’s Paradise Lost. “We performed it here and recorded it in New York City at the Riverside Church,” she said. 

Now 75, Donna is perhaps most proud of teaching music to her son, Matthew, who sings and plays guitar in his own band. “We tour all over the country, playing roots and country rock,” he said. Tahoe folks got to see him in action last summer at Music on the Beach in Kings Beach. 

Earlier in his career, Matthew’s band, Axton and Company, played around Tahoe with Donna on the piano. He is now based in Los Angeles. “He is doing really well. I’m really, really proud of him,” Donna expressed. Matthew represents the third generation of a family focused on creating music. 

Katie Zanto, senior lecturer at University of Nevada, Lake Tahoe, and chair of the interdisciplinary program there, said, “I loved working with Donna. She was the advocate for the interdisciplinary study major for art and psychology. She was incredibly present and engaged with the student work. The type of academic colleague that you would like to have.” 

Zanto said that even after leaving the school, Donna volunteered to come back and show up and support the next round of students. “I miss her every day,” she said.

Saraceno calls her friend a bodhisattva — a person who exudes loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. According to Saraceno, “that is Donna.”  

Author

  • Tim Hauserman

    Tim Hauserman latest book is “Going it Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the trail” published in 2022. He also wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published in 2020. His other books include “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." Tim has lived in Tahoe City since he was a little tyke and continues to be amazed with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. His former English teachers, on the other hand, are probably amazed that he became a writer. Contact Tim at writeonrex@yahoo.com

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