Retired SDSU music profesor John Colson, shown playing trumpet, will be honored in February with a Governor’s Award for his outstanding service in arts education.

John Colson, a retired music professor, has been named a recipient of a Governor’s Award. The awards will be presented during the 24th biennial Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony Feb. 12, 2019, at the Ramkota Hotel & Conference Center in Pierre.

Colson taught at South Dakota State University for 37 years and was professor of orchestra, trumpet, French horn, conducting and brass pedagogy.

The banquet honors the achievements of South Dakota’s fine artists and arts leaders, according to a press release. The awards reflect the work of professional artists and arts educators and the support of individuals, businesses and organizations that encompass South Dakota’s arts community.

Colson was nominated for the Governor’s Award by “a whole bunch of people.”

Colson of Brookings will receive the Outstanding Service in Arts Education award. Other recipients are Dwayne “Chuck” Wilcox of Rapid City, the Distinction in Creative Achievement; Dr. Ronald M. Reed of Rapid City, the Outstanding Support of the Arts by an Individual; The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, the Outstanding Support of the Arts by an Organization or Business; and Lakota Funds of Kyle, Outstanding Support of the Arts to Native Nations with Lands in South Dakota.

Always music

Colson grew up in Iowa and was drawn to music from an early age. 

“From fifth grade on, I was playing the trumpet. And I studied at the University of Iowa from the eighth grade on,” Colson said. “We just went down to Iowa City, a bunch of us, and studied with a teacher there. There was a program there that would let you do that.”

He continued at the University of Iowa, earning a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music education.

Music got him through it.

“While I was going to the university, I played for eight years in a symphony orchestra, professionally. That’s how I earned my college tuition,” Colson said.

Coming to SDSU

He never really considered another profession and taught high school in Iowa for seven years before his life took a turn. 

“I got a letter in my mailbox one day and it was from my boss for many years … Warren Hatfield, and he was going on sabbatical to Russia with the University of Iowa band,” Colson remembered. 

Hatfield was a member of the SDSU Music Department faculty for 33 years and department head from 1967 to 1993, according to

“He wondered if I would be interested in taking his job for a year. Then at the end of the year, (SDSU) President (Hilton) Briggs came to me and said, ‘How would you like to stay and build up the orchestra?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have anything else to do,’” Colson recalled.

Going the distance

His favorite part of teaching was the students.

“I had some very fine students, so I enjoyed that part mostly, and then I enjoyed directing the orchestra here,” Colson said.

Music is a good thing for students, even if they don’t plan to make a career out of it.

“There’s statistics out there that say if you do music, intellectually you’re better off. … You do better in school,” Colson said.

Music has certainly been good to him.

“Music has been my life. Consequently, it’s about all that I’ve done of significance,” he said.

He’s set an example for students and his family.

“I was with my wife for 61 years and she attended every music thing that I did. She was very supportive,” Colson said of Nancy, who died in 2016.

They have four children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild on the way.

“My oldest son is the director of the School of Music at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. My second son built the Dakota Nature Center out here when he was director of Parks and Recreation. My third son was the technical director for a professional theater in Boston and my daughter is a doctor … a pediatric specialist at the Children’s Hospital in St. Louis,” Colson said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at

By: Jodelle Greiner, The Brookings Register

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