A standing ovation: Valerie Serpa remembered for making Fallon a home for the arts

Valerie Serpa and Kirk Robertson had a vision decades ago to bring the arts to Fallon. Serpa, left, who died in a Dec. 5 plane crash, and Robertson, who died from complications of a stroke in 2017, left a legacy not only in Fallon but all over the state and the West.

Valerie Serpa and Kirk Robertson had a vision decades ago to bring the arts to Fallon. Serpa, left, who died in a Dec. 5 plane crash, and Robertson, who died from complications of a stroke in 2017, left a legacy not only in Fallon but all over the state and the West.

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Remembering Valerie

Please join the Churchill Arts Council as they celebrate the life of Valerie J. Serpa at the Oats Park Art Center on Sunday, Feb. 13, from noon-4 p.m. Email info@churchillarts.… for additional information. They would also like to ask that if you have any photos or videos of Valerie that you would like to share for inclusion in her memorial – or favorite songs that you enjoyed with Valerie or that remind you of her – email them to Karen Isbister at karen@no-filter-fit…

The first Friday in December rings in the holiday joy.
The tree lighting behind Fallon’s Maine Street fountain, the youngsters talking to Santa, revelers sipping hot chocolate … hundreds of residents packing downtown to ring in the Yuletide season.
Among those who saw the tree lighting and fireworks on the cold Friday night was Valerie Serpa, executive director of the Churchill Arts Council and one of the strongest proponents for the arts in Nevada. A number of residents greeted Serpa and exchanged pleasantries; Val and others hugged.
Within two days, though, the festive holiday season soured for this community. Serpa, along with pilot Donald Sefton, also of Fallon, died when his plane spiraled to the ground on Dec. 5 after takeoff from the Medford, Ore., airport.

News travels quickly
Once authorities in Medford sorted out the crash and identified the two occupants, news traveled quickly. No one was more affected with the tragedy than Serpa’s niece, Valerie McFarlane.
“Devastation is an understatement. I’m struggling to understand why,” McFarlane said on her Facebook page. “Why my beautiful, incredible, wonderful aunt was taken from us so soon. It’s not fair. It’s not OK. My family and I, we are not OK. Those who knew her, those whose lives she touched are not OK. She has been taken from us too soon and I’m absolutely heartbroken. I talked to her that day. I can’t understand how this happened.”
McFarlane described the pain of losing her aunt. Almost five years ago, her uncle Kirk Robertson and Serpa’s husband died from a stroke. One of the most well-known couples in the community arts affected McFarlane in 2017 and again after the plane crash last month.
“This pain is so deep,” McFarlane said. “I am trying to find solace that her and my Uncle Kirk are back together. That she’s having tea with my grandma. I can feel her. I know she’s telling me to not be sad, but I don’t know how not to be.”
When Robertson died, McFarlane said her aunt’s grief was unbearable, and she didn’t know if the 67-year-old Serpa would survive the sorrow. As the years put some time between Robertson’s death and the tree lighting, McFarlane said her aunt was becoming stronger.

Photo courtesy of the Serpa family
The arts, which included music, exhibitions and artists’ conversations, were Valerie Serpa’s passion


Their dream
Serpa and Robertson became synonymous with the Churchill Arts Council, both having a dream that formulated the arts into one of the most recognizable programs in the West.
The arts council became a labor of love for the couple. It was Valerie’s passion. From humble beginnings more than three decades ago to the present, the Churchill Arts Council developed into one of the most respected programs in the West … if not the entire United States. Major grants assisted Serpa and Robertson with the expansion of the arts council including a grant of $779,587 presented by the E.L. Wiegand Foundation of Reno more than five years.
Serpa, with her infectious smile and flowing red hair, was a well-versed young woman. Her family raised cattle and grew hay, but she yearned to know more about the arts and culture. She earned a degree in Art History and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Nevada, Reno and a master’s degree in Visual Culture from Antioch University. McFarlane said this educational training led her aunt to embrace the arts and join the Churchill Arts Council at its inception. Later, she shared her vision with Robertson, whom she met after joining the arts council, and over the years they sought funding to renovate the Oats Park School into a facility with a theater, exhibit galleries and a gift store.
Even after Robertson’s death, she continued to procure funding for both renovations and the ongoing performances and exhibits.
“In my heart Valerie and Fallon were inseparable,” said Michael Scott, who now becomes the executive director of the arts council. “Valerie devoted her life to the arts and ensured it had a permanent home here in Fallon, while the community showed her immeasurable support and kindness over the years. It was this wonderful relationship that helped create the world-class Oats Park Art Center, which I have always felt is a representation of all the best the community of Fallon has to offer.”
Scott had previously served as the creative director for the past five years and helped Serpa operate the arts council after Robertson’s fatal stroke until the plane crash. Even with her death, Scott said their legacy will forever last.
“While Valerie and Kirk are no longer with us, their lifework remains strong and true, and will always be a big part of what makes Fallon so special and unique,” he said.
Teresa Guillen, chairwoman of the Churchill Arts Council board of directors, echoed Scott’s feelings.
“Valerie handled so many things so gracefully,” she said. “It is taking many hands to begin to address the many tasks she handled.”
Guillen, though, noted a silver lining.
“We never realized how well she ‘trained’ us in the different aspects of running the CAC,” she said.
Board members had different responsibilities, and the hands-on experience is now helping the board members move forward.

Photo courtesy of the Serpa family
The arts in Fallon became a dream for the married couple of Kirk Robertson and Valerie Serpa.


Support for the arts
Dr. Tedd McDonald, a member of the Churchill Arts Council board, and Serpa attended school together. He was two years her junior at Churchill County High School. They knew each other, but they weren’t close until years after they both graduated from college.
“When I came back from optometry school, she became a patient of mine, and we became reacquainted that way,” said McDonald, who was busy establishing himself as an optometrist in Fallon.
McDonald remembers one of their earliest conversations when Serpa revealed her interest in economic development and the arts. After McDonald was elected to the Churchill County School Board, he said Serpa approached him with another idea: transforming the old Oats School into an arts center. He said Robertson and Serpa wanted to bring something new and different to Churchill County.
“Their plans were big,” McDonald recalled.
Their vision transformed the Oats Park School, which was built in 1914 and designed by Reno architect Frederick DeLongchamps, into one of the most respected arts centers in Nevada. Oats Park School stood out as perfect location. The arts council raised thousands of dollars to remodel the school with three galleries, a 350-seat theater and a bar which opens an hour before each performance and serves as a rendezvous place after the shows.
The Churchill Arts Council opened the theater on Valentine’s Day 2003, and three years later the galleries offered their first shows. Benefactors Bill and Harriet Barkley donated thousands of dollars to the arts council and its projects until they died.
Mayor Ken Tedford’s voice showed the pain that not only he felt but also the community’s — especially those who personally knew Serpa. Tedford was one year ahead of Serpa in their schooling.
“It’s just a tragedy, a terrible tragedy,” Tedford said, his voice growing softer. “She was such a great friend of mine.”
Tedford said the community will feel her loss because of what she and Roberson brought to Fallon.
“It’s staggering to know the loss of her in this community and the ramifications. We knew what we wanted for the community,” Tedford said. “First and foremost, I mourn for my friend. When I got the news, I didn’t want to believe it was true. I mourn for her and the arts in the community,”
The community embraced the arts and culture, and Tedford said the remodeled arts center has become a jewel. The venue provides outdoor and indoor concerts, exhibits and artists’ talks. He said Serpa was the driving force in the community with Robertson.
In addition to making the arts synonymous with Fallon, Serpa also sat on several boards including the Mayor’s Centennial committee which arranged for the celebration of Fallon’s 100th birthday as a city in 2008, and the Sesquicentennial Committee, which met for nine months planning events to honor Nevada’s 150th birthday in 2014. Serpa and co-board member and friend Michon Mackedon also co-authored a book on Fallon.
In 1998, the Fallon City Council selected Robertson and Serpa as the cultural attachés for the city.
“She made a contribution over the years,” Tedford said. “We know we have to keep our level there for our citizens.”
Tedford said he knew Sefton but not well. As the owner of Systems Consults, Sefton relocated his business to Fallon with the help of Shirly Walker and the Churchill Economic Development Authority more than 30 years ago.
“I know he was a supporter of the arts,” Tedford said. “It’s a tremendous loss and condolences to all of Don’s family. They are suffering from this tragedy.”
Sefton moved to Fallon in the 1980s. According to its website, “This organization primarily operates in the Business Oriented Computer Software business/industry within the Business Services sector. This organization has been operating for approximately 42 years.”
Systems Consultants employed about 60 people at its Fallon location. According to a former employee, Sefton relocated from Southern California to Fallon because of the business-friendly climate.
“Sefton built a great business,” Tedford said.

Steve Ranson/LVN, file
Michon Mackedon, left, and Valerie Serpa wrote a book on Fallon for the state’s sesquicentennial in 2014.


A lasting tribute
Those who knew both Robertson and Serpa said they wanted to expose Fallon to a variety of music groups and art exhibitors.
“It is important to me to keep her alive, to keep her and my uncle’s legacy going,” McFarlane wrote in her tribute. “I don’t know how or what that looks like etc. I can’t really even wrap my head around it as each of them was truly one of a kind. Specifically, their passions, knowledge and love for Nevada and the arts were unlike any others. I know there are folks that likely feel the same and hopefully help me to ensure this happens for them.”
After her death, the Churchill Arts Council agreed by posting a tribute in honor of Serpa:
“A native Nevadan born and raised in Fallon, Valerie created a world of meaningful relationships by bringing individuals from all walks of life together through the arts. Famous for her brilliant smile, sharp wit, and incredible generosity, Valerie touched countless lives.
“The Churchill Arts Council’s Board of Directors, volunteers, and members are dedicated to continuing Valerie’s mission of championing the arts, while honoring her legacy and vision.”

Photo courtesy of the Serpa family
Valerie Serpa rests at home.



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