Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the March issue of Vashon High School’s Riptide. It is reprinted here with permission.
By Clara Atwell
Each year, seniors work to complete personalized scholarship notebooks for the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation (VCSF), showcasing themselves through collages, a personal essay, letters of recommendation and their high school transcript. These notebooks are a unique opportunity provided by the community and give seniors a guaranteed scholarship upon completion.
Since 1986, the VCSF has provided over $2 million in scholarships for graduating seniors looking to further their education after high school.
“We just feel so strongly that [there is nothing] better than supporting our young people with their education and hopes and dreams, and celebrating them as individuals,” VCSF board member Shirley Ferris said.
Many of these scholarships are established by local businesses and nonprofits, or are created in memoriam of community members who have passed away. This year, however, VCSF is introducing the Making a Difference Scholarship, which aims to honor individuals who have had a significant impact on the island community day after day, year after year.
In February, Paul Colwell, a high school paraprofessional and local musician, was named as the honoree of this year’s Making a Difference Scholarship.
Last fall, community members presented the idea to the VCSF board.
“Paul came to mind, and we just thought it was the most wonderful idea and a way to honor this man students love, teachers love, [and] parents love,” VCSF Co-President Linda Mather said. “The whole community is touched by him.”
Paul Colwell’s strong character, lifelong dedication to young people and helping others, and love for music made him the natural and unanimous choice for the board.
“He is so humble,” Ferris said. “He just personifies patience and kindness, and he has spent his whole life bringing people together and lifting them up.”
Before he began working for the school district, Paul Colwell spent much of his life traveling, using “musical diplomacy” to build understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds.
He recalls his journey with music beginning on a rainy spring day in Southern California in 1948, when his oldest brother Steve Colwell suggested they start a band along with their younger brother Ralph Colwell. At the time, Paul Colwell was 12, and his brothers were 14 and 10. Within a few weeks, they were playing at a family party and the local middle school. In a year-and-a-half, the Colwell brothers were playing on radio and television.
By the time Paul Colwell was 16, they signed with Columbia Records, playing country western, bluegrass, and hillbilly music.
“We were kind of a groundbreaking group in a sense that we were some of the first musicians that were not from the country, not from rural areas,” Paul Colwell said. “We were city kids who really just loved that music.”
The brothers had a weekly television and radio show, while still managing after-school sports and homework.
In 1953, Steve Colwell had completed two years at Occidental College, and Paul Colwell was enrolled to start in the fall. The three brothers were then asked to and soon agreed to travel the world through the organization Moral Re-Armament (MRA), and use music to help with conciliation. This ended Paul and Steve Colwell’s formal education, while Ralph Colwell, who was only a junior in high school, completed high school via correspondence.
“In those days … when you got out in the world, you were a long way away, and you didn’t communicate by anything but letters and telegrams, so we kind of suspended our work with Columbia Records and took a gap year, so to speak,” Paul Colwell said. “The gap year turned into a gap life.”
Through their travels, the brothers began to recognize the power their music had on others.
“We realized, ‘maybe with music, [we] could do something to touch the hearts of the leaders of the world as well as everybody else,’” Paul Colwell said.
The brothers began to collaborate with native speakers and write songs in different languages. To this date, Paul Colwell estimates they have traveled to 55 countries, sung to over 30 government leaders, and performed in 42 languages and many different dialects, eventually picking up French, Italian, and Spanish.
“Language is very much the heart of [a] culture,” Paul Colwell said. “The fact that [we] took the time and the interest in some local aspect meant everything to them.”
In the 1960s, they collectively felt it was time to move on and work with a different organization. Eventually, they went on to help found the non-political educational program Up With People in 1968.
The organization focused on building bridges of understanding between people and creating service-based leadership training through performances around the world. Through these shows, they worked to spread a messages of hope.
“When you have a lot of young people singing together and working together, having a certain chemistry together, it kind of gives people a little bit of hope for the world,” Paul Colwell said. “The message is not necessarily in the songs. It’s almost as much in the young people doing it.”
The Colwell brothers began to help produce and write for these performances. Paul and Ralph Colwell most notably wrote the organization’s theme song, as well as the popular song “What Color is God’s Skin?”.
In each of their shows, they tried to write music that addressed the issues of the time period.
Through their years of globe trotting with both MRA and Up With People, the brothers traveled through many countries during major points of historic significance: China following the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union before the wall came down, and the Republic of the Congo immediately after the country gained independence. Notably, Colwell wrote what is now considered one of the national songs of the Congo, “Vive Le Congo.”
“We were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, a little bit like Forrest Gump,” Paul Colwell said.
He officially worked for Up With People until 2000 when the organization had to scale down, and he voluntarily left the organization. It was at that point that he decided it was time to turn work and leadership in the organization over to younger generations.
He moved to Vashon in 2001. Because Up With People is a non-profit — he didn’t earn much money for his work — and his family had to send his three children through college, Paul Colwell didn’t have much money saved for retirement.
Soon after moving to the island, he took a job subbing for the school district in order to make some extra money. In 2002, he started working full time as a paraprofessional in the special education department. Seventeen years later, he has found his place within the community.
“I’ve come to realize this is what I’m meant to be doing at this stage in my life, and it’s worthwhile work,” Paul Colwell said. “I couldn’t do anything more important.”
Paul Colwell continues to incorporate music into his job as much as he can. He also plays in the community through performances with several bands and works to encourage young people to create music and songs in the community.
“[It] has been fun and stimulating to me, to see all the creativity going on and to be in there and encourage that,” he said. “Music is a powerful tool.”
This December, Ralph Colwell died, leaving the brothers with a combined total of 71 years playing and writing music together. During this time, Paul Colwell and the two eldest of his three brothers have dedicated their lives to making a difference in the ever-changing world through the issues young people care about.
“You don’t think about making a difference. You just think about caring for people as much as you can. [You] give them your best, encourage people, be interested, and you know, I think that’s what it all boils down to,” Paul Colwell said. “Just keep trying to do that every day and hope people will benefit from it.”
He remains a consultant for Up With People, and currently is concerned about issues regarding climate change and young people’s participation in civil discourse.
“There are a lot of good people with different opinions of how to approach things, and the extent to which we can communicate and have civil discourse is going to determine how things turn out in the world,” Paul Colwell said. “That’s kind of what I think the challenge for this generation is.”
On Wednesday, May 29 from 5:50 to 9:30 p.m., VCSF will hold the scholarship award ceremony. The scholarship amount is yet to be completely developed, but VCSF knows what key characteristics they will look for in the student who receives the scholarship.
“The most highly important traits are … [being] really open to helping others, who really reaches out, who goes far beyond the norm in helping other people,” Mather said.
Ferris echoed this.
“Hopefully in quiet and unnoticed ways,” Ferris said. She hopes the student has a deep belief in humankind and a connection to the words “hope” and “unity.”
“All the young people through the years always want to do something to help their fellow human beings,” Paul Colwell said. “I think that’s where the hope lies.”