International opera singer touring Iowa, giving scholarships


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Simon Estes scrubbed floors, shined shoes, and carried customers' bags to their hotel rooms to make ends meet while he was a student at the University of Iowa in the 1950s.

There were days when the now-opera singer went hungry and struggled to overcome financial barriers.

But despite hardship, Estes nurtured and trained his voice and became one of the first in a generation of African-American opera singers to perform as an international success. He has sung in the best-known opera houses around the world for prestigious audiences, including the pope, presidents, and celebrities.

Now, the 73-year old Centerville, Iowa, native wants to give back to his roots.

"I feel that we have a moral, a human responsibility to help these children," Estes said. "And education is so important to solve the problems in the world."

The Simon Estes Iowa Educational Foundation Inc. is one of the musician's philanthropic endeavors. He also founded the Simon Estes International Foundation for Children in Switzerland and the Simon Estes Educational Foundation in Tulsa, Okla.

One of the efforts of the Iowa foundation is the "Roots and Wings" program, which provides scholarships to high-school seniors who want to attend college.

As part of this effort, Estes is in the midst of a performance tour in each of the 99 counties in Iowa.

The musician gives half of his shows' proceeds to scholarship funds. The Johnson County show's proceeds will go to his foundation and the Johanna Beers Scholarship Fund, both of which will provide scholarships for applicants nominated by area schools.

Estes's foundation has awarded 53 scholarships as part of the 24 shows on the tour thus far, and he isn't stopping there.

Johnson County represents the 25th stage for "Roots and Wings."

Estes will perform at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 in City High's Opstad Auditorium, 1900 Morningside Drive. Select choir students from City High, West High, and Clear Creek Amana High will join Estes for the performance.

James Thompson, a doctoral candidate in music at the University of Iowa, assistant choral director at City High, and Young Iowa Artist program participant, will also sing with Estes. Admission is $25 for the general public, $10 for students, and $50 for VIP tickets.

"The students are really excited about it," Thompson said. "We're making sure the students know the level of what we are doing here. I'm excited for them, because this is a neat opportunity."

This performance will be Thompson's seventh performance with Estes in the "Roots and Wings" tour, but the two have worked together for years. Estes served as an educator and mentor for the Mount Pleasant, Iowa, native during his education at Boston University, and he continues to work with him on his voice skills today.

"He has a nurturing teaching style; he's very encouraging," Thompson said. "He's very positive and very helpful, and he has the ability to get performances from good to really great because he has been at such a high level. He understands that last 5 percent of the process."

Although Estes is retired from his teaching career at Iowa State University, Wartburg College, and Boston University, the "Roots and Wings" tour provides a platform for him to continue educating young minds.

He will give a talk to students the day following the concert about the importance of education.

"I do this because I want to help these young people," Estes said. "I don't do it for any personal gratification at all. I thank God that I have the talent to do this."

Johnson County community members involved with the performance recognize the benefits of Estes's work.

"You just never know what the trigger is that will flip the switch for some kids," said Greg Grove, City High's coral director. "You don't even always know at the time, [but events like this] plant a seed."

City High Principal John Bacon agrees about the educational effect of Estes's performance.

"It's going to be a spectacular opportunity for students to interact with an international star," he said. "In general, college is expensive, and I think there has been a lot of literature lately about the amount of debt and how oppressive that can be, so any amount of scholarship money is invaluable to someone setting off on that journey."

Estes said he is thankful for the support of the Iowa communities that recognize his mission to improve opportunities for young adults from the state. Community support in Johnson County for the event is sponsored by the Altrusa Club of Iowa City and local business that have donated goods, services, and funds.

"I'm hoping that what I'm doing will motivate people, people who have talent," Estes said. "People [should] realize that we have so many talented people right here in Iowa, and there are going to be opportunities in the future."

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