Interview with Jerry Sprouse

January 7th, 2020 / James Vanko /

Infinite Music sits down with Jerry Sprouse, a local woodworker whose skills have made a difference in the lives of young people from Paso Robles to Costa Rica. His special talents and generosity has helped Infinite Music advance their mission of music education on the Central Coast.

So how does an innovative woodworker like yourself (who doesn’t play a musical instrument) get connected with a nonprofit music organization?

As I remember, I read an article in the Tribune about Infinite Music and the programs you’re involved in and I thought maybe I could help by building some cajónes for your students to play. I had some wood left over from other projects that would be perfect for the sound boxes—walnuts, birch and maple—all nice sounding and finely grained woods.

They sure are! The finished “cajónes” are beautiful and the kids love playing them but, for some of our readers, we may need to explain, what are cajónes?

Yes, there is more than one meaning. In this case, a cajón is a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru and it’s played by slapping the front or rear faces with your hands and fingers. I found out about them when a drummer brought one to our church for a performance, and I immediately thought this is something I could build with the kids. I borrowed it from him to take some measurements and also found some plans online.

We know you build other instruments as well furniture, cabinets, toys for the toy bank in Paso, picture frames, clocks, pens, and you also helped restore an historic military buckboard wagon for the Pioneer Museum. Tell us about the beautiful small lap harp you built?

A friend of ours played the harp and wanted a lap harp—something that she could use with her students. I ended up building three harps and kept one for myself. That was twenty years ago and a lot of fun to build.

A beautiful, handcrafted wooden harp with painted flowers.

You mentioned “…something you could build with the kids”. What did you mean by that?

When my wife Betty and I retired to Paso Robles, I had some time on my hands, so I got involved with Youth Works in Oak Park and the Paso Robles Housing Authority. I donated my time to teach middle and high school kids living in the community woodworking classes after school. We built all kinds of things—furniture, toys, picture frames and yes even cajónes!

Jerry Sprouse teaching a shop class.

Working with kids is challenging. How would you describe your relationship and teaching approach?

My approach with kids has always been to give them some guidance and then some space—let them figure things out for themselves and how to improve their process. Perfection is possible and being passionate about something leads to perfection. You need to invest time into achieving it.

Woodworking is an art that always remains fresh and challenging as your skills evolve. It involves problem solving and adapting. I’ve been at this for over forty years (Jerry was born in 1939) and I still face new challenges with every project I take on. It’s part of the process. It’s rewarding to produce really cool stuff using your hands and brain.

What I think I love most about working with kids has been teaching them that whatever you do give it your best shot and take the time you need to do it right—there, that’s my life lesson.

You even found your way to Costa Rica to teach kids—how did that happen? 

Through our church. It was a great opportunity to work with native Costa Ricans—I taught them woodworking which introduced many of these kids to a trade—an occupation. And yes we built cajónes—they love playing those in Costa Rica!

Before we end our conversation, Jerry, I know our readers would be interested in hearing more about your background. You and your wife Betty have had a fascinating life, and in your case one that took you to sea. Can you tell us a little about that?

Well, not sure how fascinating, but it has been a journey! How about I touch on the highlights.

I grew up in Illinois and made my way west after graduating from college. I went to grad school in Tucson and after that got a job working as a civilian for the US Navy in China Lake. That was in 1964 and I spent the next 38 plus years as a civilian employee for the Navy. We adopted a son and daughter along the way—that was a high point and my son is also a very talented furniture designer. 

What did you do for the Navy?

Technically I was a mathematician, but I was mainly involved with search theory and anti-submarine warfare. I spent a lot of time on submarines and destroyers in the Pacific working with sophisticated sonar devices that helped our submariners avoid detection and our destroyers to find enemy submarines. It was around this time that we moved to San Diego. 

I would call that pretty fascinating! When did your love affair with wood working start?

When I retired from the Navy in 2000, I went back to school at Palomar College and was also working for a contractor. I took some woodworking classes and really fell in love with it.

That is one way to retire! There’s no grass growing under your feet, Jerry we know you have some projects to get back to in your shop. Thanks for spending this time with us.

Jerry has enriched the lives of so many kids from Paso Robles to Costa Rica. Many of “Jerry’s Kids” have developed their woodworking skills into a worthwhile trade, while others have made it a lifelong hobby and passion. Teaching and sharing your talents, giving of your time, and imparting something you’re so passionate about with others is quite remarkable and the purest form of giving. On behalf of Infinite Music and all the students that have benefited from your generosity, Thank You Jerry!