1988 Swan Award Winner: Eleanor McKnight Haines


Mrs. Haines was born in Selma, south of Fresno, on Jan. 28, 1914. She moved to Ceres, where she began singing in musicals while attending Ceres High School. She continued to star in productions at San Jose State College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general education with a music specialty.

One of her first jobs after graduation was teaching a sewing class in Empire, and it didn’t take long for Mrs. Haines to realize it wasn’t her calling. “She had to ask the students how to do the next stitch before she taught the lesson,” said her daughter, Claudia Saunders, 64.

Mrs. Haines moved to Modesto in 1946 and began what would be a 30-year career as a music and voice instructor. She started as a music teacher in Ceres and in 1953 began teaching music in Modesto City Schools. She spent 15 years as a director of vocal music at Downey High School and traveled across Europe with the school’s choir. Mrs. Haines’ students made several appearances at the International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria, and also traveled to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Budapest, Hungary, to sing. She also directed 14 musical productions at Downey.

Dawn Peterson was one of the Downey High School choir members who traveled to Vienna with Mrs. Haines. Peterson, 53, is a private voice instructor and credits Haines with pushing her to continue her singing career. Peterson said Mrs. Haines’ “horribly funny” sense of humor reminded many people of Lucille Ball, not to mention her bright red hair, manicured nails and exquisite jewelry. “She looked like she stepped out of a Chanel store,” Peterson said. “She was elegant and sophisticated, but she had an edge about her. She was a fireball; she wouldn’t accept anything but perfection.” Mrs Haines served on the Modesto Symphony board of directors beginning in 1948, and was named president in 1974.

In 1993, the theater at Johansen High School was dedicated to Mrs. Haines, as the Eleanor McKnight Haines Performing Arts Theater.