By Sarah Sharp
They traded the Big Apple for Blaine 13 years ago, not expecting to be swept away by the charm of small-town living, the ocean in their backyard or the local music and arts community – a tradition that would thrive under the couple’s influence.
As Martin and Tiiu Kuuskmann began to settle into life in Denver, Colorado, they reflected on their time in Blaine. It’s the town where they raised their three children, where Martin launched an international bassoon soloist career and where they’ve met some of the “best people in [their] lifetimes.”
“There is a generous spirit of support for one another, and people are genuine and unpretentious,” Tiiu said. “Where we thought we might live a couple years turned into more than a dozen.”
Their move followed a job opportunity that’s been a year in the making. Come September, Martin will join the Lamont School of Music faculty at the University of Denver as an associate professor in bassoon and chamber
But the family’s keeping one foot in Blaine.
Just two weeks ago, they were looking for buyers for their Blaine home. Then, a change of heart while working on some home improvement projects prompted Martin to reconsider.
“I couldn’t bring myself to sell it,” he said. “I was working on some things on the house and I said to Tiiu, ‘Look, we can’t sell.’”
She agreed. “It’s really hard moving away from a pretty place like this,” she said. So the Kuuskmann family won’t cut all ties. They’ll come back to Blaine during the summers to enjoy the pleasant weather and fun summer activities, including the Drayton Harbor Music Festival. Although Martin cannot participate in the festival this year, he remains involved with its artistic development and anticipates teaching and performing in it next year.
He also hopes to bridge the distance between mountainous Denver and seaside Blaine by making the Lamont School of Music and the Drayton Harbor Music Festival sister organizations, he said. His vision includes inviting Colorado musicians to join him on the 1,400-mile trek to the festival.
Still, the family’s absence will be felt among their Blaine friends, neighbors and music students. Martin mentored numerous high school and middle school students from Blaine, Bellingham and Seattle through private music lessons, in addition to coaching youth in the Drayton Harbor Music Festival, which was renamed from “Blaine Jazz Festival” to encompass more genres of music.
At the same time, he cultivated an international following in his bassoon soloist career, traveling frequently from Blaine to places such as Brazil and Australia. “It’s kind of amazing that I’ve been able to build a career in almost the tiniest place you can imagine,” he said, laughing.
Tiiu served on the Blaine Parks and Cemetery Board as well as the Blaine Trails and Open Space Committee for a decade. In that time, she pushed for a walking lane along Peace Portal Drive and played an integral role in getting the Blaine Marine Park playground built.
“I just had a passion to see Blaine develop,” she said.
Despite the move, her passion remains. She encourages Blaine residents to keep a pulse on local government because she said ultimately, they have more potential to affect change than some might realize.
“You have a voice here,” she said. “You’re not just a tiny feature on a large scale.”
In the coming years, Tiiu hopes to see Blaine gain a department and grocery chain store, such as Target or Fred Meyer, to minimize the need for Blaine residents to shop in Bellingham, she said. She would also like to see Blaine develop a focal point for the town, perhaps similar to Lynden’s windmill, to attract more tourists.
On the same note, Martin believes Blaine – which he believes would benefit from the addition of “Harbor” in its name – should emphasize the town’s history as a fishing village in the spirit of Bob McDermott’s statue on the H Street plaza that pays tribute to the mothers, wives and children who waited for their fishermen to return from sea. The couple also hopes Blaine will eventually make its downtown, harbor and beach signs more apparent to passersby.
As they move on to life in Denver, the Kuuskmann family will always remember the town that allowed them to connect with a beautiful seaside community, Tiiu said.
“Life here is within human scale, and there is an opportunity to be connected to where you live and the people around you,” she said. “That is unique and compelling in today’s world.”