She Loved the Journey

Tamara Leuck in the 1980s

A family’s generosity extends a UO legacy

In the fall of 2014, the very first Tamara Leuck Mortensen Scholarship will be awarded to a piano student at the UO. It will be an auspicious way to start the life of the scholarship; the beginning of 2014-15 classes in October of 2014 will mark ten years to the month since the passing of the fund’s namesake.

Tamara Leuck Mortensen was born in 1962 in Wichita Falls, Texas. Her mother Judith was a “double Duck,” earning a UO Bachelor of Music degree in 1989 and a Master of Music in 1991. With a concert violinist for a mother and a U.S. Air Force colonel for a father, young Tamara learned both discipline and artistry at a young age.

Tamara met her future husband, John Mortensen, in May of 1983 in Los Angeles, where he was working for a technical company. Tamara wasted no time in impressing upon John how strong her family connections were to her, and in particular, how Tamara’s mother had shaped her character.

“Her mother would wake her up at five-thirty for piano practice,” says John. “She would always do her practice early in the morning. Unlike some kids, she loved every minute of it.”

“She had Hodgkin’s lymphoma when we were engaged,” John explains, but the two seemed fated to be together.

Honing her Craft

In September of 1987 the couple moved to Eugene, where both enrolled at the UO. John became a computer science major, while Tamara opted for the UO’s program in piano performance, where she studied under Claire Wachter, associate professor of piano and piano pedagogy.

Tamara and Wachter soon became close friends, with Wachter a driving force in Tamara’s appreciation of music. Tamara was such a proficient player that Wachter encouraged Tamara’s interest in progressing to a graduate degree in piano performance at the UO, even before she had completed her undergraduate work.

Tamara Leuck Mortensen in 2004"I remember that the piano faculty was so impressed with Tamara's audition that we applauded her performance—practically unheard of for an audition," recalls Wachter.

John Mortensen remembers his wife’s dedication to her education and to her craft, from the first note she played and the first paper she wrote at the UO.

“They offered to have her start working on her master’s degree before she was done with her bachelor’s” he marvels. “She would procrastinate, and then she’d stay up all night working on her paper, and get A’s on everything.”

“If she had some creative thing going, it would be an all-day affair,” says Mortensen. “I might be able to get a word in about eight o'clock at night! She loved the journey, and she loved the teachers.”

In fact, Mortensen says, “Tamara was more interested in the journey than in the degree.”

That journey took the Mortensen family to some amazing places, professionally, artistically, and in their home life. During their years in Eugene, while John graduated from the UO in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and took a job at a software engineering company, the Mortensens built their blended family, including both adopted and birth children.

Mortensen says Tamara became the main accompanist for music programs at Lane Community College. At church she was always either the choir director, the accompanist, or both, throughout their marriage. The Christmas concerts the Mortensens held each year at their home grew to legendary proportions.

Eventually, the Mortensens returned to life in Southern California so that John could take a position at semiconductor company Qualcomm.

“Music is my Life”

Sadly, Tamara passed away on October 27, 2004 of mesothelioma, at the age of 42—the same age, John notes, as Jane Austen, Tamara’s favorite author.

The family received some funds from Tamara’s life insurance, but it seemed somehow wrong to use the money for anything but the support of music education.

“I thought it should go to something she loved,” says John Mortensen, who is now remarried and living in San Diego. “The thing that Tamara loved was music.”

Thus was born the UO scholarship, which will support a promising musical talent in the UO’s piano area each year.

"We are so grateful that Tamara's family has honored Tamara by giving this scholarship to the School of Music and Dance,” says Wachter. “The Tamara Leuck Mortensen Piano Scholarship will help a deserving and talented piano student to realize his or her musical dreams."

Besides a scholarship that affords emerging artists with an amazing educational opportunity, Tamara Leuck Mortensen’s time at the University of Oregon has one other lasting legacy: the couple’s daughter, Judith Claire Mortensen, born in 1997 in San Diego, who goes by Claire.

“Tamara named her after her two favorite music people,” says John Mortensen, “Judith after her mom,” and Claire Wachter, who John characterizes as “a person who gave Tamara opportunity in life.”

In the 1980s, Tamara recorded her thoughts about music in her personal journal, noting, “Music is my life. I love it. It inspires me, exercises me, gives me emotional outlet, & gives me a way to communicate to others & God.”

Thanks to the generosity of the Mortensen family, Tamara can continue to communicate through music to the entire University of Oregon community.

Text by Aaron Ragan-Fore. Photos courtesy of the Mortensen family.

If you’d like to make a gift or bequest to assist SOMD students, contact the development office of the School of Music and Dance at 541-346-3859 or by e-mail.