Cover photo for Wilho F Saari's Obituary
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1932 Wilho 2022

Wilho F Saari

July 7, 1932 — January 19, 2022

Wilho F. Saari, longtime resident of Naselle, WA, went to be with his Lord and Savior January 19, 2022. Born July 7, 1932 at his family home in Naselle, Wilho was the third child of Wilho Saari, Sr. and Aili Lindstrom Saari, following behind sister May and brother Leo. His childhood was spent on his family’s farm, raising cows and playing music. He liked to recall how he and May would race home after school, each wanting to be the first at the piano. Wilho’s love of music was prominent throughout his education. Though he grew up believing he’d continue running the farm, two years after graduating high school, he decided instead to study music at Bethany College in Southern California, “just to see what it was all about.” Wilho eventually transferred to Northwest Bible College (now University) in Kirkland, WA, where he graduated as one of the school’s first two music majors, and assisted in composing the original Alma Mater. He also attended Seattle Pacific University, where he obtained his teaching degree. During a visit home in the spring of 1957, Wilho met Kaisa Kankkunen, a girl visiting from Finland who was staying with some of his relatives. After returning to Seattle, Wilho thought he “ought to write that Finnish girl,” which he did in April. In May they became engaged, in June they were married, and then in July, separated – but only so Kaisa could return to Finland for the proper visas. And as Wilho liked to joke, “she was Saari ever since.” The newlyweds first settled in Brooklyn (Washington, not New York, as Wilho was always quick to mention), where Wilho worked as a school teacher in nearby North River. It was here that they became first-time parents to son Riki in 1959. The family then moved to Seattle so Kaisa could finish her studies at the University of Washington, and soon after, in 1962, they added daughter Karen to the mix. In the mid-sixties, the Saaris received an offer to move to Liberia in West Africa and work as teachers in a mission school. For many people, such a move would require much thought and questioning, but Wilho, who always navigated life with curiosity and playfulness, simply thought, “Why not?” and off the foursome went on an adventure that so few get to experience, returning with stories of wild experiences and deeper insights into the global nature of God’s kingdom. After a few years abroad, the Saaris returned to Wilho’s hometown, where they settled permanently. Wilho spent his remaining years in education working at the Naselle Youth Camp and High School, and leading music for the Naselle Assembly of God Church. It was after retiring, however, that Wilho’s most remembered achievements took place. In order to fill the newly wide-open days of retirement, Wilho began to spend his time playing the kantele – Finland’s national instrument. He had grown up listening to his father and uncle play, and though he had never learned in his youth, he figured that the instrument “had been quiet too long,” and began to teach himself. Wilho experimented with kanteles of all sizes – from 5 and 10 strings to 38 and 42 – and soon, what began as a hobby became mastery, and mastery became notoriety within the Finnish-American community at large. Over time, Wilho became a sought-after teacher of the kantele, a staple performer at Finnish-American festivals around the nation, a published composer of over 4,000 tunes, and a recipient of numerous awards, including the Washington State Governor’s Heritage award, the Finlandia Foundation Performer of the Year award, as well as the title of Tradition Bearer by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, D.C. – the highest honor a folk musician can receive. For all he accomplished, though, Wilho’s most cherished performances were those that took place in his everyday life. It was rare to ever see him without at least a 5-string kantele in tow, playing quietly in his car while his wife went grocery shopping, in hospital waiting rooms as he anticipated the arrivals of his grandchildren, on his son’s fishing boat, in his yard for neighborhood children, or in his recliner as he lulled himself into an afternoon nap. For those of us who knew him, the sound of his kantele provided the soundtrack to our lives’ measured moments, and it is this very idea that best sums the man he was: never forward, but always around. The way his music supported the moments of our lives reflected a man who always supported those around him with sincere kindness, earnest playfulness, and utmost generosity. Wilho never met a stranger, and if his music met your ear, you may as well have met family. Wilho was preceded in death by his parents, siblings, and wife of 59 years, Kaisa. He is survived by his children, Riki (Jill) Saari of Chehalis, Karen (Greg) Nelson of Naselle; his grandchildren, Kelsi, Kyle (Katie), Karli, Kirsten, Kenny, and Kayti (Blake); his great-grandchildren Kaisa, Freya, and Titus; and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and dear friends the world over. A memorial service celebrating Wilho’s life will be held at 2:00pm, February 26, 2022 at the Naselle Assembly of God Church in Naselle. A link to a YouTube/Facebook live stream of the service can be found at https://www.naselleag.church. Memorial gifts can be given to the Naselle Assembly of God Missions Fund.
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