Antonio Washington is not your typical non-traditional UAA student. In fact, there’s nothing traditional about him. The undergraduate music major has 20 to 30 years on his barely 20-something classmates, but that doesn’t deter him.
“People ask, ‘aren’t you too old for school?'” says Antonio laughing. “And I say, you’re never too old for anything.”
Twenty years ago, he might have felt differently, but the soft-spoken middle-aged man, adorned head to toe in green and gold Seawolf gear, is no longer the young boy full of youthful bravado—he’s learned some tough lessons to get to where he is today. Still, he is hopeful and feels he’s been given a second lease on life and that UAA will help him realize his dreams of becoming a musician.
Originally from Seattle, Wash., Antonio came from a large family with seven sisters and two older brothers. He grew up in a Baptist church-going household and his early influences and appreciation for music came from his mother and sisters.
“There was always a piano in our house,” says Antonio. “I used to run by it and just tap it while my sisters were singing gospel and my mom would play church music.”
Despite growing up in a musical family, Antonio didn’t play a piano until his sophomore year of college. Growing up he was the strong, handsome athletic type and pursued sports throughout high school and into college. In fact, that was how Antonio paid for his first round of college. He received a full-ride basketball athletic scholarship to Santa Barbara City College. But his sports career was short-lived as he succumbed to the distractions that accompany a student-athlete’s fame.
“After the dorm parties came the frat parties. If it wasn’t for the coach making sure the basketball players had 12 credits, I would have flunked out of school,” says Antonio shaking his head. Despite his parents’ advice to buckle down on his studies and become a doctor, he continued to scrape by with mediocre grades. Ultimately, Antonio lost his scholarship and was forced to reevaluate his life’s plan.
“The end of my first year (of college), I walked by the music room and heard a piano. I sat down,” Antonio says, his face breaking into a smile. “I actually started playing a song from my head that I just happened to like.” For Antonio, this was the pivotal point where his journey and lifelong love affair with music began. His second year of college, he focused his studies and energy on music, training as a classical musician intending to write and compose orchestra music.
“When I first got into music, I thought it was going to be hard, but after I played that first note, everything fell into place,” says Antonio. The discovery of his knack for songwriting and perfect pitch made him realize he was meant to enrich people’s lives through music. The young Antonio was eager to jump into the music scene and with full steam ahead, the twenty-something immersed himself in all things music.
He joined a small band and began playing the club scene up and down the California coast, hitting all the popular venues from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. His girlfriend at the time encouraged him to join the Santa Barbara Musician’s Guild and he says that was the best 50 bucks he spent of his whole life. Joining the guild turned him into a full-fledged musician and he often saw representatives from the bigger record labels frequenting the popular clubs, hunting for new talent. Antonio earned his big break when a representative from Island Records, looking for a rhythm and blues (R&B) artist, asked him to record in their studio.
“I made an album’s worth of material and won my first record contract with Island Records,” Antonio says. “I was just 25 years old.” That was in 1985 and he believed he’d made it to the big leagues well on his way to a music career. He sold his album, was playing with a band and gaining success as an artist, when he bumped into a musician whose brother was a rapper. Antonio had no experience with the genre, but was willing to take a stab at it, ending his contract with Island Records and moving to a company called Swamp Dog Entertainment. He helped write for a budding star, Young MC, who later changed his name to Sweet MC and produced the hit song, “Bust A Move.”
For Antonio, his career in music seemed to end just before it began. He was cut out of gratuity earnings at Swamp Dog Entertainment. Broke with nowhere else to go, he headed home to work in the family business. While there, he made one last ditch effort to write music for a friend from high school named Anthony Ray, who went by the name of “Sir Mix-A-Lot.” But things fell through and he hung up his musical aspirations for a while. Life rolled on, he got married and had a son.
“I had put music away after becoming a father,” says Antonio. “I pushed everything and music away from myself. I got dispelled, displeased. I didn’t play the piano, I didn’t play the bass. Music is a joyous thing and I enjoy listening to all styles of music, but I just put everything away, man. I didn’t really enjoy music anymore—as far as playing.”
In 2007, Antonio quit the family business and trekked north after his half sister encouraged him to come work in Alaska. Hopeful for a new chapter, Antonio boarded the Discovery Star, left the Port of Seattle and 12 days later landed his first job in the state with Icicle Seafoods. From there the company shipped him out to the Bering Sea, Dutch Harbor and Naknek. Antonio quickly fell in love with Alaska and its pristine beauty.
“I really love Naknek. It is so beautiful in the summertime,” Antonio says. “I fell in love with it, waking up every morning with the sun on your back, salmon jumping out of the water, beluga whales. It was just beautiful, the most beautiful experience I ever had in my life.”
After the summer fishing season ended, he returned to Seattle, but the “call of the wild” drew him north the following year, for a second fishing season. He switched seafood companies working for Trident Seafoods as a forklift driver and traveled around the state for the various fishing runs. After spending two summers in Alaska, Antonio decided Alaska was home and it was time to make some permanent decisions. While in Seward he signed up for Alaska Vocational Technical Center’s (AVTEC) heating and air conditioning course but was waitlisted.
“I worked so hard to get into school that the counselor informed me, ‘don’t panic, go to Anchorage or go to Kenai,’ so I went back to Kenai,” Antonio says. That was the beginning of 2011 and Antonio enrolled himself in Kenai Peninsula College. Life was going great, he was excited about his classes, his grades were good and then life threw him a curve ball that shattered everything.
“My father passed away,” Antonio says softly, swallowing hard. “That really shook me up.” Shortly after his father’s death his aunt passed. It was too much to handle so he left school for the second time.
Antonio was determined to not let his dreams of attaining an education slip away. While talking with his advisor he revisited the idea of pursuing music once more.
“I said I went to college in Santa Barbara and studied music,” Antonio says. “And he said, ‘do you want to get back into the music program? Do you feel that you could sustain a musical career?’ I said, I really think I could do it.”
From there, Antonio hit the ground running. Reinvigorated and with a whole new outlook on life, he once again dove into music. He admits, he’s not the young man he once was, but is glad that he’s an older, wiser and more humble version of himself. He has to study a lot harder, but knows he’s back where he belongs, and is grateful for all the support from his classmates, professors, the music department and the UAA community.
“I am having the time of my life,” Antonio says with his eyes closed, slowly and thoughtfully annunciating each word. “I love UAA. I am UAA. I wear it every day proud. I really enjoy being here.”
He’s inspired by his classes and classmates, hopeful for the future, already building dreams for himself and others in the land of the midnight sun. He hopes his energy, passion and love of music will translate into something great for the university as well as the Alaska community.
“Not that I felt like I got lost in Santa Barbara,” Antonio says. “But I took a left when I should’ve stayed right. I should’ve stayed in school.” He says he tries to pass on that little bit of life’s wisdom he’s gained through his own trial and error. He knows that he is just as much a student as he is a teacher and is excited to see where UAA and music take him.
“When we’re young sometimes we feel indestructible, that we can go get it later,” Antonio says. “Some people never get it later and in the course of waiting to get it, we live life. Life is not going to stop for no man.”
But for Antonio, although life’s path diverted him many times from a dream conceived years ago, his story is one of perseverance. Time has weathered his hands and face forming the smile lines that crease his mouth and forehead, but his youthful energy is infectious and it’s hard not to get swept away in his excitement and enthusiasm.
“I’ve had the opportunity to live out an early young man’s dream. It’s like I have a second shot at life now,” Antonio says. “You’re never too old to go back to school and find something that you love, that you enjoy.”