Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Powerful Healing of Words of Love

As this day marks another time of disbelief and anguish in life as it unfolds, and tumultuous times escalate, even in Bryan-College Station, words, words, and more words are flying back and forth. It’s easy to get lost in incessant outrage, and when every sentence you think begins with “Are you serious?” it looks bleak. Yet, something unique happened today, entirely unexpected, and I’d like to share it, hopefully as inspiration.

Early, early Sunday morning, I posted this remark on Facebook:

Facebook wanted me to share how my day went. 😂 😂 😂 Well let me just say this...there are times in your life when you are so grateful you have good friends that love you, and today was a shining example of that. No big story of woe to share here, no reason for worry or sympathy is needed. Just sharing joy this late night hour in having loving friends like family as I feel incredibly lucky. Thanks for asking Facebook and you have a good night, as well. Let us all find a reason to be thankful and share joy, plus the bonus is that we can all find something to be joyful over!

At that point, I wasn’t interested in taking my Facebook friends through my recent “surprise” that had happened just five hours earlier. Let’s just say that you don’t want to climb steep steps in a movie theatre wearing flip-flops. Enough said. But just a few words more about that.

No one cherishes a face-plant, but when one happens that looks worse than it feels, that’s a good thing, for starters. But that thought didn’t bring any comfort to dear friend #1, because I couldn’t tell what my face looked like because her face seemed very calm.

Her encouragement of me to let her take me to urgent care, though, wasn’t heeded because I didn’t need it. I knew I was fine. And first thing, a dear movie patron comes down from the row behind us (as I’d made my way to my seat, sort of), and tells me she’s first-aid certified and was reassuring that I should go get it checked out. Someone had managed to find three theatre employees and they were there like magic, with a bag of ice, paper towels, and one had a clipboard to get my information and see how else they could be of help.

Dear friend #1 followed me home, to assure that I made it home, and I was fine as I drove the easy distance home. On the way I called dear friend #2 and she said, “I was just thinking of you!!! What’s going on?” and I said, “Well, um, it’s a long story but…” and she said, “I’ll be at your front door in 20 seconds….I was waving at her, smiling, as I drove to the garage.

She was ever as calm as she always is and reassured dear friend #1 that she would make me go to urgent care and override me, if I didn’t have a change in what was going on at the time. Two hours later, I decided that it was “almost” better, and I had no pain at all, nothing was broken, everything was fine, but my face said otherwise. Long story short, things improved and she confirmed same, and I knew it was going to be great.

Before I went to sleep, I just felt so thankful on so many levels. Nothing hurt, nothing was broken, and kindness had abounded everywhere around me. Angels all, seen and unseen. I did the standard concussion protocol and woke up every two hours. Each time, I smiled that I knew full well my name, my address, and that I'd been surrounded by angels the entire time.

Dear friend number #3 brought breakfast over the next morning so I wouldn't have to go out. Then, lunch later that day with dear friends, #4 and #5, then life went on as usual. Text messages from all of the above checking on me in person and online continued. The joy of cover-up sunglasses will hide a multitude of facial imperfections. In fact, I rather liked how I looked in those sunglasses, and again, miraculously, nothing hurt. Nothing was broken. Blah, blah, blah.

Moving forward, on Monday, I drove to the theatre to talk to the manager to thank him for training his staff (he wasn’t there that night) to respond so kindly, professionally, and showing true caring. I know he was nervous at first seeing me, as anyone might be when walking in before he’d had a chance to call me. He said that I was on his call list for that day as he was back in the office and had just read the report. I said, “Relax, I’m here to share compliments, with you.”

We had a lovely chat and I asked him if there was something I could do to commend those staffers to him and he said he’d look up who was there and make sure they know. I left with guest passes and concession refunds and nothing but feeling fortunate for everything. Again--nothing broken, no pain. No reason to say "awww" or feel badly for me. Please don't. I am 100% fine!

I went home and found the theater’s web site and sent an e-mail to corporate management to thank the local folks for their actions. When you feel so fortunate, gratitude fills your heart and mind. The e-mail they returned to me was equally personal, thoughtful, and I look forward to returning there for the next movie. The only ironic, hilarious thing is that we were headed to see “Wonder Woman.” Well, I already own the cape, the glasses and the silver bracelets, but I’m not, and never was a Teen Titan, but I did grow up to be an avenger, of sorts, ha.

Life went on, work went on, and five days later, I look much better although I describe myself as “I know I look like a six-year-old helped me with my makeup,” as it usually brings a smile. And, it actually does look like a six-year-old helped me.

So when I went into College Station's Jason’s Deli tonight for a to-go order, I saw a very sweet young lady behind the to-go counter. She took my order and I figured I still looked pretty scary and she wasn’t even flinching, so I said, “Don’t worry, dear, I’m fine; one of those things, I’m very lucky.” And we had a lovely chat and I didn’t think I’d said anything unusual to set myself apart as any other to-go customer.

When I arrived home and started unpacking my healthy sandwich and sides, I was stunned when I saw the napkin, pictured in the photograph above, which reads: “You are a gorgeous person, inside & out. Thank you for being you!”

I don’t think anything has stunned me in a long time the way this message of kindness, included to be found later. I'd done absolutely nothing that I could think of that would have precipitated such kindness. Could not imagine what the trigger would have been, and yet, I gave up questioning the "why" and focused on my reaction. The smile on my face has lasted for two hours now. I’m still smiling.

As the news of the day from many sources around me, national news coverage over things I never thought I’d live to see, other news of hurtful actions against people I regard, who did nothing to deserve it except work hard and being kind, gracious professionals, in a day and time when everywhere you turn, people who are afraid to stand up and speak out remain frozen in their tracks…this small miracle happened.

As I’ve given it considerable thought, one message remained in my mind over and over. The power of words can heal a broken heart; the power of random acts of kindness can change a life and a person’s outlook long beyond the day’s end; and the power of one person to make a difference is endless. It begins with one voice, one action, one kind thought, one exceptional deed, one hug, one kiss, one heart reaching out for another, and from there, the possibilities are endless.

It’s like a domino effect, holding on to hope, to believing in the basic goodness in all people, and searching hard within them to bolster those who need lifting up, to being there for friends who are being treated poorly and unkindly, and offering faith and comfort when people are about ready to give up on the basic principle of “do the right thing, no matter what.” Together, kindness can conquer evil. Together, words of love can bring healing rather than division. Together, people taking the first step to move forward embolden others to reach out for another’s hand can and will make a difference.

Writer Thomas Bähler reminds, “Anything is possible.” Phillippians 4:13 reminds “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” And my mother said, “Never give up having faith, never.” Wise words all.

Smile, shine, work, believe, hope, pray, meditate, act positively with kindness, always. There’s more of “us” than there are of “them.” Every single day.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Glen Campbell passes away, leaving Baby Boomers inherently sad

Sitting at my computer reading the words surrounding Glen Campbell’s passing being shared across social media today leaves me feeling like we’ve all been robbed of part of our youth.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that we tuned in to “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” on television, and watched as a pure-D country boy from Delight, Arkansas, charmed his way into our homes and our hearts? That was 1969.

Delight, Arkansas, proudly claims their native son. It's 34 miles from Delight to Hope, Arkansas, the city best known as a birthplace of a U.S. President. It's also the birthplace of a good friend here in Bryan, Texas, and in my many travels there over past decades, the people there today are as gracious and kind as they were back when Glen was growing up there. Small towns always have charm, good stories, great vegetables to prepare, local color, and rich history worth sharing for the next generations. Most of all, they as a community are proud when one of their own "makes good." They claim you, and that says "everything" about you right there. You belong.

By the time of the "Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," though, Glen was already a television veteran, having appeared on 21 episodes of “Shindig” from 1964–1965 He was a self-taught “guitar picker” of the first order in Arkansas terms. In Los Angeles music circles, he was a first-call studio musician. Years of practice made him one of the most accomplished raw talents ever to find acclaim without having been mentored or shepherded into the field by someone else. He found his own way to Hollywood. Therein began the problem, I think.

The characterization of country music singers as down-to-earth was never more deserving as when Glen Campbell wore the title. Every photo you see of him as a member of the fearless Los Angeles “Wrecking Crew” shows a clean-cut boy ready to go to work each day. He wore a white dress shirt and even a preppy sweater at times in the studio.

Left: Glen Campbell, Wrecking Crew member, in the studio. Photo credit: CNN.

Right (below): Leon Russell, Wrecking Crew member, in the studio. Photo credit: The Gretsch Pages

That was even back in the day when Leon Russell wore a Duck tail type haircut lathered in Brylcreem, before his “top hat” and Duck Dynasty beard. Every musician had a “look” in the 1960s, even in the times of the Wrecking Crew. Hal Blaine always had cool aviator glasses, Tommy Tedesco had a neatly-trimmed moustache, Carol Kaye had her cat-style eyeglasses and Glen Campbell always looked like the boy next door. Later he’d find turtleneck shirts and snappy country-western suits as his choice of attire. He always took the time to present a neat image.

True, they were for decades unknown celebrities, but today thanks to Denny Tedesco and social media, they're recognized for their genius and role in creating the music we all love and still own. No, anonymity didn't guarantee a happy life, but it preserved a stable existence. Clearly, not all celebrities lived excessive lifestyles, but the boy from Delight was transfixed by what he thought was his playground to enjoy and he chose not to miss a moment of it, the grand, the great, and the tragic. Eventually, he crashed and burned, badly. When it came time for Glen to record his own songs, naturally the Wrecking Crew would be his choice. Quick, hear the opening of “Wichita Lineman” in your head? Opening bass line that sets the whole song for you? Carol Kaye. And so it was that Glen Campbell, playing his guitar on hit after hit, including and especially the Beach Boys’ sound, helped establish and undergird the elements of every pop, rock, and easy listening song on virtually every label coming out of Los Angeles.

Yes, Glen was part of the Beach Boys for a time, but really, he was the first and only one of the Wrecking Crew to really ever break out of the pack on his own and achieve a level of stardom that eclipsed many of the people whose records he was on as a session player.

Someone brilliantly put together a YouTube video of Glen’s best guitar solos, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Glen lost himself inside the world that he'd longed to live in and belong to. In becoming a true member of "the scene," he left behind the safety and stability of the Wrecking Crew, whose lifestyles didn't include drugs and alcohol because they worked unglamorous hours and raised their kids on the money they made in the studios each day. Glen had belonged there, too, and stayed as long as he could, until his desire to stretch and grow overran his good common sense. He crossed the line of safety. While others partied hard, the Wrecking Crew (save for a choice few) have lived full, healthy lives because they knew better than to try and risk stability for drugs.

While he was sprinkled in stardust and lit by spotlights, hit after hit belonged to Glen Campbell, thanks in large measure to the songwriting talents of Jimmy Webb. As a Texan, probably my favorite of Glen’s songs was “Galveston,” penned by Webb.

Again, what's poignant in this video is that Glen allows Steve Wariner plenty of time to share the spotlight, and then he shows on his own solo the virtuoso that he was always will remain in the hearts and minds of those who love him.

Another Webb-Campbell hit was the angst-filled song that became ‘known’ was “Where’s the Playground, Susie,” which Glen poured his soul into as he sang. “Wichita Lineman” was probably the biggest hit of the Webb-Campbell combination, although I’m not relying on chart history, just strong subjective opinion.

Again, you see songwriter John Hartford on banjo on Glen's show. He was always surrounded by the best musicians, and in the studio, he was as well.

Then, perhaps others' favorite Webb-Campbell combo is on "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." In this version, Glen is definitely "young Glen" with his newly minted country-style suit, and his guitar with his name on the fretboard, the way many Grand Ol' Opry stars had on their custom guitars. It's charming, really, and it's country.

Glen Campbell’s life and loves and trauma-drama of his middle years were typical tabloid fodder. I recall being extremely angry reading his actions because he had made so many poor choices. It’s funny to read that sentence back, knowing he didn’t give a flying fig about what I, or anyone else, thought of him, and yet, whenever I collect music and follow the careers of singers I enjoy, musicians I admire, I’d like to think that I make smart choices. When they do something dumb, I dismiss them from my mind and say, “Well, that was great music for its time…moving on, now.”

But something happened in the middle of my disdain for Glen and his distracted craziness as he played victim to “living life large,” and that was basically so many of his fans also gave up on him, stopped caring, and he went to being a caricature of himself, it seemed. It wouldn’t have been inappropriate to ask him, “Didn’t you used to be Glen Campbell?”

He had a wicked funny sense of humor. He was popular on television talk shows and kept the hosts in stitches as his natural responses to their questions revealed country-boy charm mixed with big-city wisdom and America sort of fell in love with him again. All was forgiven, sort of, kind of. He was, after all, a maniacally good guitarist who was a savant at how to deliver a song.

In 1993, I had the great fortune of traveling with a dear friend as we took her mother to the mecca trip of all mecca trips: Branson, Missouri. It had been a bucket list item for her and as we made the trek, we saw six shows in three days. The major league brilliant college-age showband backing consummate showman Andy Williams at his Moon River Theatre, to Tony Orlando giving his all at the newly christened Yellow Ribbon Theatre, to Wayne Newton (of course!) being Wayne Newton, Shoji Tabuchi at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre (ask anyone about that theatre and one word comes to mind—bathrooms!—elegant!), and then Glen Campbell and the Smothers Brothers on the same bill, just like the old days on television.

I remember that Glen’s oldest daughter, Debby, performed with him, and it seemed as though the onstage duo was mending hearts as well as blending songs as they reunited to make music. Glen’s musicality was never in question. He played about every instrument someone tossed at him, and made it all look easy. It felt good to watch a calmer, gentler Glen take on the music and connect with the audience “the way he used to do.”

Glen Campbell and his daughter Debby, in concert. Photo credit: Daily Mail.

Fast forward to years later and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. Never mind the middle of his life, forget the trauma-drama that surrounded much of his conduct and waste of time and talents…America opened their hearts with sympathy to the then current plight and admission that years of living as he lived remained forgotten. The origin of Alzheimer’s in a person’s body is still not very quantifiable but no matter the origin, there it was alive and thriving in Glen Campbell’s brain, robbing him of his own best (and worst) memories. Perhaps that wasn’t so bad.

Either way, at the end of his life, Glen was fortunate enough to marry a woman who provided great loving care for him, and gave his life dignity and meaning at the very end, when it was most important to him.

One of his best friends in the final years of his life was rocker Alice Cooper. Although the two seem an unlikely combination, as this recent video interview shows, the two men were like brothers. It's heartening to hear Alice's words as they bring comfort and consolation to know that all the best circumstances surrounded Glen as his condition began to increase.

I’m not sure what the last things were that Glen Campbell actually thought about as he approached his end of days, confronting his mortality, and being relieved that a long struggle was about to end, but whether or not he realized it, he brought hours and years of joy to so many lives with his music. His talents remain unforgotten among those who respect session players; his sense of humor will always define him, and at the heart of soul of the troubled Glen Campbell, deep down inside, that kid from Delight, Arkansas, really showed up proud in the big city, where he made his fame and fortune on talent, guts, and determination.

Sharing a special video of a favorite song, with both Glen and John Hartford, who wrote the song, performing and showing Glen’s gift of harmony and humility as he allows the songwriter to have a showcase of his own. That’s the true strength of starpower, when you can give the credit where it is due. The singer makes the beautiful song a major hit, but it’s even more beautiful when the singer thanks the songwriter for the hit that brought the magic.

Rest in peace, Glen Travis Campbell. You’ll always be gentle on my mind.

Photo credit: TWC Central.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Power of Family

The more time we spend with people, the more we discern who we most enjoy being around, working with, spending good times with and who we’d go into the proverbial foxhole with. Today, the youth call it their “ride or die” friends and another variation is “ride and live” friends, depending. Most people just now say “they’re family.”

The word “family” has far too long been reserved for people your parents tell you that you’re related to. I remember hearing a young cherub say, back in 2001, “Our family goes to this church. We go here.” She wasn’t even old enough to name all the members of her family, but she knew that “our family goes to this church.”

A good friend and I often discuss “family” and who is part of our extended family, the people we regard as “ours.” Now, even Hallmark makes a greeting card, “For a friend who’s just like family,” and it’s meant to show the bond that exists between a group of people beyond whatever a birth certificate says, or doesn’t.

In the world of a private school, at least the one I went to, it was one of the most beautiful microcosms, or social experiments that you could ever hope for. We were about 300 strong, from 1st through 12th grades. Later, Keystone School would add a kindergarten, once they bought a building at the end of the block in which to locate it. And, I remember that we all knew one another, at least by first and last name and which grade we were in. If someone went to Keystone, for one year for all twelve years, we were a family.

When I was in first grade, my mother and I would be walking through the halls of Wonderland Shopping Center in San Antonio. Tall boys and teenage girls would greet me by name and I’d return the greeting, saying their name. My mom would look at me in wonder and say, “How do they know you, Dawn Lee? Where do you know them from?” and in my five-year-old voice, I’d reply, “Oh, we go to school together.”

Mom did her best not to drop her jaw and I didn’t think a thing of it until long after graduation when I’d greet those who were the first and second graders when I was in high school. I marveled at how beautifully they’d matured, but I never once felt a bit older. At Keystone, we were timeless.

Our mortality was never in question, save once, when we heard of a member of the class of ’63, Ernest Holub, who’d been caught up in a current when the Senior Class was on their Class Trip. Ernest died, and a memorial fountain was constructed on the front lawn of the main building in his memory, where it remained until most recent years.

Just as we the students considered ourselves as family, so too were many of the teachers who spent their lifetimes and livelihood at Keystone teaching all of us. The salaries were not competitive in the least, and many of our teachers “moonlighted” by teaching at area colleges simultaneously when they were teaching us. Interestingly our senior classes used the same books as the college freshmen, and that made college easier. It’s no wonder that when groups of us gather at different times during the year, depending on who’s in town, we include teachers to join us if they’re available.

After classes were done for the day, those of us with parents who worked would congregate in the school cafeteria, a large room in an old historical house that would come to be known as Keystone’s Founders Hall. There was a small television in the far corner of the room, with chairs arranged in a semicircle for children to watch “Captain Gus” host his “mateys” to watch cartoons, mostly Popeye. Then, KENS-TV showed “The Flintstones" and “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” before parents arrived to pick them up.

At the other end of the cafeteria, atop long parachute-folding tables purchased from USAF surplus, the high schoolers were doing their homework or playing chess, and the elementary school children enjoyed their snacks within arm’s reach of the older kids, and the exchange of conversation was ageless. The senior kids didn’t talk down to the youngsters, who offered interesting questions and broad smiles as well as a few hugs. It’s fair to say we were one big happy family.

After graduation, for years Keystone hosted an annual holiday tea reception for alumni to come back and visit with one another. On the Friday before the holiday break, anyone in the cafeteria who wasn’t doing homework had to stop playing chess or pull away from gabbing to help out with arranging the furniture in the cafeteria. Everyone had chores and if you didn’t volunteer, there was no penalty. There was no reward or punishment if you participated in helping out but more often than not, few people sat around and watched others work. That element of family dynamics again, crowd influence by example.

It was only natural that people would collect around the school at holiday season as long as they were in college and still came back to San Antonio to see their families. But in years following that, time and distance kept the gatherings smaller and attendance faded. You have to remember that some classes were exceedingly small. By example, the class of 1973 had 10 graduates, the class of 1974 had 21 graduates (down from an initial freshman class size of 32), and the class of 1975 had 11 graduates, if memory serves. I’ll look it up later.

And yet, in the 1970s and 1980s classmates found a way to keep in touch. We wrote letters and made phone calls and stayed in active touch with many of our classmates. We drove to see each other as best we could when classes were out. In 1984 my “classmate” from 1963 (she was a senior when I was a first grader) and I worked almost a year, long distance before cell phones, to organize a reunion in 1985 and we had over 300 people attending one or more of three functions over a weekend period. In 1990, Lizzie Newman determined that as many from the 1970s of us should gather and she worked to make that happen. It did and it was lovely.

Poignantly, Lizzie passed away in 2013 and Tommye passed away in 2014, both of them far too soon with too many reasons still to be here and with many loved ones left behind in “our family.”

People react to loss differently. Some grow quiet and introspective. Others get on Facebook and write their memories. Others write far-too-lengthy blog posts. So, it’s time to get to the point of all this.

With each passing that we mark, with each loss we endure, we grieve. Our approach to grief is personal, but one thing is absolutely certain. For Keystone School, all who passed through those doors are part of a family, which actually began in 1948.

We were all impacted, for good for or bad, by our Keystone roots. Growing up in the Keystone family most assuredly defined our thirst for knowledge and our determination to pursue excellence, no matter what fun we might miss in the meantime. Others were skilled at balancing both. Of all the gifts that were imparted to us, our sense of family surely predominates as we are all today reflecting on the life of one we loved, one we knew, personally or just by virtue of knowing her brother and sister-in-law or her mother and father.

No matter where your family comes from, the ones your relatives gave you or the ones you collect into your life and keep forever, just remember to take every chance to tell people you love in your life that you love them—now. Don’t wait. Don’t assume they know.

For every opportunity you tell people in your life, “I value you’re being here,” “I cherish your friendship,” and “thank you for being my friend,” you actually see them, you hear them, and in that way they will be unforgettable. So that when, one day, that they are no longer with you all the time, your memories are rich, full and stay in your heart forever. The more love you give, the more love flows back to you. Live, love, laugh, and be grateful. That’s the best gift of family we all have to give one another. That’s the power of family.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Heart and Soul of Mary Louise Davis — Random Reflections

When I saw the newspaper announcement that longtime Bryan native Mary Louise Davis had passed away, I saw that it happened on July 4, 2017. Wistfully, I smiled to think that the gates of Heaven had opened to allow a firecracker inside, rather than Heaven projecting fireworks toward Earth. Surely hers, though, would be the kind of fire that the Holy Spirit is often portrayed as showing in the fire of Pentecost we often see. The Methodist religion often is symbolized with a cross and flame as you’ll see it on virtually every church sign in Texas (and other states).

So, to identify Mary Louise with the 4th of July, flames, and faith would be something she likely would not mind me doing. Her blue eyes and her white hair and the tall, slim figure who moved with grace and dignity were the hallmark characteristics of a southern gentlewoman who spoke deliberately and brilliantly. Now, Mary Louise was most often considered a Baptist, but first she was a Christian, with no need for labels to secure her religion.

She had a commanding, yet genteel, voice and she waited until you’d completed expressing your thoughts before pronouncing her opinion. The first time I saw her was at a gathering where the topic of discussion was golf. She’d come from her retirement life in Austin, back to Bryan to visit family and friends here, and her presence was always a delight to all who knew her and loved her.

If you were going to see her, though, you’d probably be better suited to visit Briarcrest Country Club and don’t be late for your tee time! Punctuality was a benchmark of Mary Louise’s personality. She said it had to do with respect for another person’s time.

To those who knew her far better than I, they know more about the love story and life she had with her husband, Judge W. C. “Bill” Davis, who was a brilliant, handsome attorney, educated first at Texas A&M University and then, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he enrolled at Baylor and earned his law degree there.

In their early days together, Mary Louise and Bill called Bryan “home,” as Bill progressed through the local legal ranks to serve as Bryan Municipal Court Judge, Brazos County Judge, then was appointed judge of the 85th Judicial District Court by Gov. Dolph Briscoe, and was reelected for two more terms. He served as Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals from 1978-1990, in Austin. He died in 1993.

Mary Louise chose to stay in the Lakeway area in the Austin hills, where golf courses abounded and sunshine was plentiful. She played golf as long as her eyesight would permit her to, and then she simply enjoyed being a part of the community there.

It was there that Mary Louise became an active part of education and Bible study for residents of Lakeway Church, a wonderful nondenominational church that overlooks a vista of Austin that seems like a small piece of Heaven itself. And so it was there that I really got insight into Mary Louise’s faith. She’d called a mutual friend here to invite her to a women’s faith seminar that was being hosted there, and my friend invited me to join her.

The program was lovely but it was at the luncheon afterwards at Mary Louise’s table where I first found insight into her faith. Life had been a challenge in many ways for this beautiful woman. The details are not important and if you know her well, you know what they were. I’d prefer to focus on her strength, her stalwart faith in God, and her inherent ability to trust in Him, no matter what all was going on around her.

After that luncheon, when Mary Louise came to Bryan, she’d call and we’d meet, or I’d be included where she was joined by longtime friends, and we had some great conversations about faith. Life and work had been so much of a challenging battlefield for me, and I felt outnumbered and weary.

One day soon afterwards, I opened my mailbox and found a small book by Bruce Wilkinson, “The Prayer of Jabez.” It was from Mary Louise and her note inside suggested that I pray that simple prayer each day and ask for strength and to follow the will of the Creator who’d made me. I was blown away…first that she had heard my concerns, my fears, and my worries, being outnumbered and powerless to right the wrongs I had not created, but were created around me.

Then, she went out and secured a copy of a book she was using as inspiration for her teachings of her group at Lakeway, and that a virtual stranger, now newcomer, could be showered with the protective rain of faith around me. She believed me and what I shared, something few people, even among my friends, did, even though it was the truth. Her being “older and wiser” meant she’d seen it all before and knew what I was going through. Her lovely low voice would ring, “Oh, I know!” and you knew in an instant that she did know.

The prayer of Jabez, and the story perhaps, have fallen by the wayside of shifting ultrapopular media minutes that have seen “The Secret,” “The Five-Minute Manager,” “Who Moved My Cheese,” Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life,” and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” They each took hold of the spotlight for a while, until the next thing came along and shoved it out of the list. But the prayer of Jabez remains, simple and true.

“Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil.”

Yes, that’s the one. Twenty-six words of wisdom and faith. And yet…it asks us to stop turning inside for answers, to look outside for instruction, guidance, and direction to a path that keeps us from evil and, therefore, harm. So often we are tempted to stop and pray, meditate, and demand that our world get better—immediately.

We beseech one whom we see as a Higher Power (one I’m comfortable in calling God) to pull the knives out of our hearts and the boulders out from our paths so we can get on with having fun and enjoying life. And our tones aren’t always particularly pleasant; they can be demanding, especially if you are a person of faith, where you expect that you are “owed” something for having your faith, and you can present a list of reasons why you should be immune from suffering.

The prayer of Jabez is one of the sweetest ways in which we are told to “Shut up, get in, sit down, and buckle up” for the ride of our life (you know you’ve seen the bumper sticker). Only when we ask to be kept from evil can we assure that we’re neither the perpetrator nor the victim of same. Only when we ask that we have our territory enlarged do we grow the kind of new and strong friendships that endure far superior to the possibly superficial ones we have here in the “now” of our lives.

The book, the prayer and the thoughtfulness was a life-changer at the time and when she came to town, which was less frequently as the drive became longer and harder on her to make, we’d visit. I saw her now and then; once when I was over in her part of town, I went to her home and met Chauncy, the white ball of fluffy joy who ran her Austin life (are we not better off when we are owned by fur babies?). She showed me on her desk that she was in the midst of preparing her Bible study materials for the coming week's lesson. Mary Louise was effervescent as she told me about what she’d been teaching for the past several months. She may not have been driving around town much, but she certainly didn’t retire from teaching, inspiring and guiding her friends at Lakeway Church.

Her sense of humor was subdued, very ladylike, but the one-liners she’d deliver were priceless. We kept in touch, at least at Christmas. I loved her wisdom and her confidence in my ability to solve anything that life may throw and as she listened intently, asked relevant and poignant questions, she helped me hone in on the feeling that I’d been heard, validated, and that she had imparted a new level of insight into my challenge at the time. In fact, she cared deeply about hearing what I had to say. How many times do we really look at the people who are talking to us, face-to-face without distraction or our mind wandering to something we simply “must do”?

Friendship, true friendship, is defined by our ability to care about our friends’ lives, keep track of the people and situations and circumstances that envelop their hopes, dreams, challenges, and then to stick around to celebrate victories or offer encouragement that “This too shall pass,” and offer the true gift of staying in touch when times are good, just as when time are bad. She called at random times, just to check on me and hear what I was doing. I cherished each call. I wrote her cards and notes and sent them by mail, not knowing when a "best time" was for her schedule.

Which brings me to another chance gift, out of the blue. A decade after our first meeting, we had the chance to again connect in person for a gathering and she learned that I was balancing caregiving for my Mom while working, volunteering, and enjoying life. There’s a certain feeling of helplessness naturally that comes along with caregiving. You’re doing everything you can and yet you can’t reverse the course of aging, no matter what they tell you on television. And it’s frustrating to feel useless to make things “better” for your loved one.

So, the day I opened my mail and found Mary Louise had sent me “God Calling,” the book by A. J. Russell, was a day that a major smile was on my face. With its simple black leather-like cover, the tiny tome was slightly larger than the average paperback book and half as thick. Each day, labeled, had a particular devotional contributed for the day, and it was helpful to read and find a simple reminder to be encouraged. When we have hope, you know, we have joy. When we have faith, we have knowledge. When we have hope and faith together, we have power to do what we need to in order to keep on going.

That was Mary Louise—she knew just what, and when, you needed an infusion of faith and she delivered it. Every Christmas, after her Christmas season birthday, she’d address her Christmas picture collage of son Craig, and her beloved grandchildren, Amanda, Jeff, and Dean and, of course, Chauncy. Mary Louise was a larger-than-life figure and role model to be sure, and her family was reassured of her love, every day of their lives.

She was fortunate to be surrounded with incredibly loyal, loving and caring friends throughout her life, the kind you’d want a loved one to have “if anything should happen to you,” to be the advocate and protector to secure your future. It’s funny to describe, in this day and time, that women of any age need advocates as the perception is that women can handle anything that is thrown at them, but face it, men and women alike cannot master all that life has to offer at all levels, and friends need friends, period, to help them make long-range decisions. Mary Louise had those, without question.

Even though others didn’t realize it, because I never spoke of it, she never failed to call or e-mail on my birthday, and we talked near Christmas each year (until the most recent years) and one day she was on my mind so strongly…long story short, I reached Amanda and I told her I had been thinking about her so much.

Amanda understood what I meant and I said, if I mail her a card, will you make sure she sees it and she assured me she would. So, I promptly sat down and wrote what I felt confident that the people in my world whose life is near ending (whether imminent or eventual) will know the difference they’ve made in my life, without ever hinting of impending end-of-life. And, I know Amanda got it to her, so I felt good about that.

It would be a holiday weekday when she passed away and I was grateful that the family had included her obituary notice from Austin in the local paper. So many who live here would want to know, and despite all the modern conveniences of electronic communication, we’re grateful to still see important things in our newspaper.

The fact that she was 93 wonderful years old is heartening—she ate healthy food carefully and for some reason, I remember her extolling the benefits of eating Wasa Crispbread, as opposed to the usual loaves of preservative-infused white bread. Funny what we recall.

I remember her invitation to have lunch with her in Austin at the Headliners Club when I was going to be in the city on business. It’s a prestigious and historic club about 62 years old and in the world of exclusive clubs, it is. By invitation only, based on references of two Resident members in good standing, you’re either in, or you’re not. She had been a member for years, courtesy of the Judge’s revered status in Austin, and more business deals have reportedly been made in that building than in many others.

Those who follow Texas news know of The Headliners Foundation, who fund journalism scholarships and award prizes for Texas print and broadcast journalists, many of whom were responsible for major, well, headlines, in the best days of Texas journalism before others came in and bought up the big papers and replaced investigative reporting with Nordstrom’s ads (I think she’d like that I said that, ha). Mary Louise knew I was a budding writer and wanted me to have a view of our state capitol that put things in perspective for me. She, of course, made no attempt to let me know what an honor it was to be there. Instead, she claimed they had a marvelous salad. That’s just “classic” Mary Louise.

So, as I sit here today, a writer that she always knew I would be, I smile to think of her. I see her quiet smile and her dancing blue eyes, I hear her voice and feel her prayers of strength and encouragement for whatever it was I choose to dream. With that kind of friend, you don’t need daily contact to feel the connectivity of regard. But there were gracious reminders that our friendship still endured, through distance and health challenges.

Today, I feel certain she has her own “best seat in the house” with “her” Bill, in whatever the Headliners Club might look like up there, and most surely there’s a golf course on site, and the words “happily ever after” seem most fitting. I’ll never forget her kindness, her consideration, her example of grace and acts of faith. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Insight Into the Mind and Heart of a Winner -- The Gary Blair Biography

From the moment you open the book, “A Coaching Life,” by Gary Blair and Rusty Burson, you’ll meet a new friend who shares his history and his heart with you. Suspend your preconceptions of who Gary Blair is or “must be like” when you prepare to hear his story. You may know him as the Head Coach of the 2011 NCAA Division Women’s Basketball Champions.

You might know him as a Marine. Or you might just remember him from being the most frequently seen Texas A&M Administrator in the Bryan-College Station area—they're all Gary Blair, but until you read this book, you don't know the extent of his patience, the depth of his love, or the wisdom of his wit.

The persona of Gary Blair has been created over the course of 14 years at Texas A&M but long before he arrived in Bryan-College Station, he was established in Dallas, in Lubbock, in the states of Louisiana and Arkansas and his impact goes far beyond women’s basketball. His passion for baseball and his ability to participate, master, and teach any sport is exceeded only by his ability to motivate, inspire and lead young adults and teenagers.

There are more than a few "famous names" you'll encounter among contemporary sports legends whose high school careers intersected with Blair's days at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, or his days coaching at Louisiana Tech, but the beauty is that "each player" Gary Blair coached is a star in his book, and he in theirs.

Most refreshing in this volume is the accurate reflection and statistics on the paths to the various championships he collected with each pursuit. Co-author Rusty Burson is to be commended on two counts; first, the accuracy of the facts, figures, dates and places are guaranteed accurate because of his relentless pursuit of accuracy. (I remember hearing him speak at a live broadcast of the “Gary Blair Radio Show” during basketball season earlier this year.)

Second, Burson is a brilliant co-author in that he “let Blair be Blair,” which means the original authentic voice of Gary Blair remains unfettered, and the stories they share read as brilliantly as if you’d be hearing Gary relate them in person, as he can and does, to a delighted crowd of any size. Unquestionably, apart from sports, apart from his ever-abiding spirit of competition, family comes first with Gary Blair.

In addition to his own family, every student he ever coached is a permanent member of the Blair family collective. His wonderful memory is filled with the accomplishments of his students, and he is one proud papa to the world’s largest collective family, in addition to his own children and grandchildren.

The Marine in Gary Blair is also revealed and it’s no surprise he loves history, he loves his country and he loves people, even when he and a band of brothers were put to the test in boot camp. You learn how and why the famous (+) symbol is written on his left hand before the game (if you didn’t already know from being around his radio show or Aggie basketball fan events).

And no matter how many days you have to wait until basketball season starts again, there is baseball and golf and some other sport played at A&M that seems to generate a large amount of focus. I forget what it is, but unquestionably, Gary Blair is the most important proponent of all things Texas A&M. In fact, from the earliest days Gary Blair volunteered first to do the assignments that no one else wanted, created something from nothing, and took it to the top.

His legend grew, but his ego remained modest. He’s proud of what he’s done to be sure, but he’s never forgotten the joy of why he loves sports, youth, and coaching. Nor does he forget the people in his life who gave him his first opportunities, who stood by (and around) him when he needed them most, and whether he got paid for doing it (often he did not), he was ready at a moment’s notice to step in and be a part of generating focus and enthusiasm wherever it is needed at the time (unsalaried for doing it). This just generally shines through the way he describes the people in his life.

You will find Gary Blair front and center at soccer, volleyball, track and field, golf, women’s softball, and anything that involves competition and Aggies, and he’s the best advocate for women’s sports you could ever hope to have in Aggieland. Read how generous and enthusiastic he is about the accomplishments of all Aggie teams from his very beginning days.

There’s a Bible verse that reminds me of Blair: Matthew 6:33 (“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”) That’s basically who he is and what he does. His ability to connect with people is a real gift.

If you’re a Texas A&M former student, you want this book. Peek inside to meet a vital part of the Texas Aggie family, and stay a while to get a crash course in the making of a legend. This book was a gift to me and now I’m gifting it to others. It’s one you won't want to put down, so budget your time accordingly. Here's the link if you want your own copy: "A Coaching Life" by Gary Blair with Rusty Burson

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Remembering Eddie Gilmore

Eddie, at Christmas 2012, with dear friends.

It had been at least 5 years since I’d seen Edward Charles Gilmore, best known as “Eddie” to his wide array of friends in Bryan-College Station, but learning of his passing this morning on a friend’s Facebook post generated a few memories from over 20 years of seeing this larger-than-life truly good soul at the top of his game, living life large. With his beautiful head of white hair and trimmed white moustache, I had to smile at the impression he left on all those around him. He was a tailored, dapper gentleman, no matter what the occasion.

The first thing you saw about this amazing man was the imposing figure he posed; he was tall, built like a trim offensive lineman, and he walked fast whenever he was headed somewhere. The second thing you would likely see was that he was usually in the company of his beloved wife, Virginia, the genuine light of his life. One family nickname for her is ‘Shorty,’ but to be fair, standing next to Eddie, everyone is short.

Eddie and Virginia were best friends first before they were married, and in all the years I was around them, they spoke to one another with such great regard, respect, and just a fun little bit of good-natured teasing, but never a cross word. Virginia was the go-power that made Eddie able to be the social butterfly he was and that they were. This devoted couple loved music, dancing, sports, and their oldest and dearest friends. For the last three decades of his life, they were very much at home in Bryan, Texas. Others who knew him far better can cite his early career years and his love for Texas A&M, even though he graduated from another school.

In the 1970s and 1980s, if memory serves, Eddie had been a mover and shaker in the financial world of stocks and bonds in the Dallas area, and Virginia had worked for the same firm. Both were brilliant with numbers. Eddie’s razor-sharp memory was one of the most amazing things about this man.

To know Eddie means you know that he lived and breathed sports, 24/7. ESPN should have called him if they needed a fact-checker. In fact, there were a few times he’d talk to the TV, explaining how they should have known better than what they were saying, which was fun to watch when a gathering of friends would enjoy a sporting event together.

Eddie loved watching all the “NCIS” episodes when USA Network ran marathon viewing days during his retirement years. It didn’t matter how many times he’d seen them before, he’d willingly watch them again and again. He could probably recite all the dialog by heart, with his phenomenal memory.

I remember when, after years of trying, I’d finally made it past the preliminary rounds of the competition to be a contestant on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” I was headed to New York City to try out at ABC Studios there and in the event I made it past the semifinal round, I’d already planned ahead and asked Eddie to be my phone-a-friend should there be a sports question that I couldn’t answer. Between Eddie and Gene Joyce, the answer to any sports question ever considered could be answered right here in the Brazos Valley.

Eddie was absolutely thrilled that I’d asked him to be of counsel for me, and I felt confident that I’d be hauling back a ton of money if my big question revolved around sports! If only I’d been able to make it past the semifinals. A dear friend had gone with me to the audition to keep me company, and as we stood in line to get into the testing area, we saw how far back the competition stretched around the block for the chance to win.

So, my friend and I both got to take the test, a nice surprise; after it was over we marveled at the obscurity of some of the questions! Meaning, no we didn’t make the cut, ha. Eddie probably would have been the one to know all the answers to the entirely baffling questions on the written quiz, but not me. Anyway, for a long time afterwards, I acknowledged him by my greeting him with: “There’s my phone-a-friend!” He just beamed.

Eddie was a real savant when it came to sports and statistics. Some people are great with key knowledge of one sport, such as baseball. They will know everything about their favorite team or the sport as a whole. But Eddie had the entire sports gamut covered—baseball, basketball, football, you name it. He rooted for the Aggies and grumbled (just like a true Ag) if they weren’t playing up to their potential. His memory was phenomenal, matched only by his passion for life.

His razor-sharp wit also matched his memory during the best days of his life. He loved to watch all the major horse races on television and whenever he had the chance to visit horse racing tracks with friends during the height of racing season, he was front and center. One thing that made him so proud was when his dear friend named a thoroughbred race horse in his honor.

The other thing Eddie loved, as much as he loved Virginia, was something they loved together—great live music and dancing to it. When I say, “good dancers,” I’m not exaggerating. It was like watching Bryan-College Station’s version of Fred and Ginger. Country-western, their beloved 50s doo-wop music, no matter the genre, they glided around a dance floor with the greatest of ease. That was always so wonderful to see—like a master class in “how it’s done.” Then when they weren’t dancing, they were listening.

Locally, Eddie and Virginia were first to arrive and last to leave when live music of their choice was happening in town. One of their favorite musicians was pianist D.A. McDowell, and if he was at Christopher’s, they were too, and there was a mutual admiration society there. Other local bands knew the Gilmores as part of their supporters and encouragers of long-standing. They’d seen great performers who had launched their careers here before leaving town for bright lights and record deals.

The couple loved jazz and especially going to hear bands plays the blues. Eddie would always announce that Virginia’s favorite song was Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” and he’d make sure whatever band was performing in a club or other venue, that they played it for her if they took requests. That was a precious memory for sure. Another was Eddie’s love of lyrics, and he knew them all, which meant you might also find him singing a chorus of “Cherry Pie” with two other friends, on special occasions like a special birthday celebration for a friend who shared his June 24th birthday. It’s poignant that he “waited” to turn 82 before letting go the good fight.

The couple traveled extensively with dear friends over several decades, coast-to-coast, on land, air, and even by the sea. More recently, there was the fun of cherished annual trips to “wine country” in Napa Valley, California with friends and Eddie brought prized “souvenirs” back home and enjoyed the process of selecting favorites.

Golf was another of Eddie’s loves. First, he played regularly at Briarcrest Country Club, and then when beautiful Miramont Country Club was built, Eddie and his cart could be found as soon as the greens were open. He loved that course in particular. I believe he even played at St. Andrew’s in Scotland at least once.

The core travel group included four musketeers among the men and their beloved spouses and what was so nice to see was how well they got along for decades, an accomplishment of its own accord. Ultimately, at one point, a few years back, Eddie had a health challenge that separated him from more frequent contact with his dear friends, but as I learned recently, they didn’t separate from him.

When he was in his prime here as an investment broker, Eddie balanced work, family time, friends, and fun in a very special way. He made time for you if you needed to talk, and he was a loyal friend who could maintain a confidence. His friends and Virginia were his family and he cherished each one of them like they were precious jewels. He also cared very deeply about children. One of Eddie’s favorite local charities with whom he was a very active volunteer was the Boys and Girls Club of Bryan.

He was an active participant and volunteer and he was honored in his lifetime for his service to this outstanding local organization. He maintained memberships in other organizations as well (if memory serves, he was a proponent of the downtown Bryan boxing club), but he was pretty private about his volunteering. He had a heart the size of Texas, though, even though he tried to keep that fact to himself. You could just tell that about him.

In his final years, Eddie struggled with memory issues, and yet, his dearest friends visited him faithfully and helped him remember and filled in the gaps that they could, for as long as the memory would hold the facts. In recent years, I didn’t have occasion to see him, but I understand from one closest to him that his years of faithful friendship to others were the best investments he’d ever made in his life, as they were there faithfully with him and for him.

In life that’s really all anyone can ask for, to be remembered well, even if you can’t recall it. It’s knowing who your real friends are, when the chips are down, and to know they’re the ones who won’t give up on you, even if you have lost the sense of who you are, or who you used to be. In the family room of the home of one of Eddie’s best friends is a pillow embroidered with the phrase “Old friends are the best friends.” I believe this to be true.

When the day and time comes that we can no longer be ourselves, or recall the most important parts of our lives, we rely on those friends and loved ones who comprise the fabric of our lives, who will forever be our memory for us. They’ll help us remember when. They’ll have scrapbooks full of pictures and go over them with us, and help us remember who we were and who we are. They’ll play the songs we love, sing the words to us and with us and for us. Most importantly of all, they’ll grace us with their presence, simply being there with us.

They pray for us in good times and in bad. And that, undoubtedly leads to the greatest gift that one friend can give another—the gift of time. Eddie Gilmore gave his generously to his friends, always, unconditionally. His love for Virginia was unceasing and remains timelessly intact. He will always be there to watch out for her, so she need not fear a thing.

Godspeed, Eddie, and please scope out the best music venues for the rest of us, will you? We’re counting on you to save the best table for us. And there, the bands will play on, where the music and the dancing never ends, where love—like good music—overflows. The song written by your life here on Earth will play on forever, in the minds and hearts of all who were fortunate enough to know you.

Edward C. Gilmore

June 24, 1935 – June 27, 2017

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Conductor Larry Blank Leads Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen: Delivers Great American Songbook Classics in Pasadena Symphony POPS Opener

Across America, where great symphony orchestras struggle to find and maintain adequate funding to support the sharing of classical music and music classics with the public, the stellar Pasadena Symphony Orchestra is a priority to the leadership of the City of Pasadena, California. Clearly, the PSO is now flourishing in both audience and patronage, thanks to a dedicated Board of Directors and staff executives, whose commitment of time and resources underscores its value.

Bringing vibrant entertainment and sharing important music from the Great American Songbook and favorite Broadway tunes is the overall emphasis of the general Pops programming. The City of Pasadena has enthusiastically committed time and resources for this annual free concert, their gift back to the community. Each year the attendance has grown even larger and represents highest and best use of public funding as evidenced by Saturday night’s crowd. Organizers were heard to call it a “new record-setting audience,” of at least 5,000 enthusiastic music lovers.

The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra -- Friday evening before the concert, a special opportunity to watch the dress rehearsal provided a unique perspective about the hearts and minds of the talented vocalists, above and beyond the music. They are each gracious and humble about their individual talents, and their ability to blend their magnificent voices on the duo and trio numbers was seamless. Conductor Larry Blank knows the Great American Songbook intimately, and chose perfect songs for each singer, individually and together.

Dress Rehearsal -- There's extensive planning that goes into operations (marketing and fund-raising) behind the scenes, the logistics of symphony operations and then the music programming is an entirely separate but massive operation. Most of us don't see any of that but we're all certainly happy to show up early, park our cars conveniently, and sling portable chair bags over our shoulders, knowing we’re going to have a great time and hear beautiful songs. It's easy to overlook the hours of preparation that go into making an unforgettable evening.

Suffice it to say that if this was the first time you heard each of these ladies in concert, you'd be hard-pressed to find three more affable singers whose personalities blended as beautifully as would their harmonies the following night. What a concert performance doesn’t reveal is the generosity and genuine spirit of harmony in the exchange of ideas in rehearsal, nor does it show the brilliance of the conductor in crafting the program set list and order. Rest assured all elements are there and the conductor is the air traffic controller to create the magic of Music Under the Stars.

Preshow, Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Pasadena City Hall (TCVMedia), Conductor Larry Blank (Photo: Larry Blank Music).

Pasadena Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Affiliations -- Approximately 26 members of The Pasasdena Symphony Orchestra not only played their instruments beautifully, they brought such a magnificent uplift to all the songs. Evening formal attire adorned them perfectly as they played million-dollar notes for the singers to sing. Although each musician was outstanding, principal percussionist Theresa Dimond was brilliant as was keyboardist Alan Steinberger, and the horn section was outstanding. The skilled PSO members who were gathered for this POPS concert were well rehearsed for their performance. The sound company stayed busy in their preparations for the big show to come.

Special kudos are due to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Chorus and the Donald Brinegar singers, who combined to provide the tremendous background voices on selected numbers that so greatly enhanced the performances. Mr. Brinegar directs both vocal groups and combined their ranks to create the perfect accompaniment to many key songs.

Before the Concert -- Late Saturday afternoon, the audience built exponentially as early concertgoers were treated to plenty of interesting activities. A musical petting zoo was available to inspire children to want to know more about classical music, and a series of food vendors satisfied the ever-growing crowd. It was about sunset when the program began promptly. As the orchestra warmed up, some young 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds were spotted up front (with their parents) dancing when they heard musical snippets. At some point, you never know where the next harpsichordist, the next pianist, percussionist or virtuoso string player will emerge from the inspiration they see in the “grown-ups” at work. More than one youngster has wanted to become a conductor, by watching the masters at work.

Welcome to Music Under the Stars --

To open the evening, Lora Unger, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association thanked primary supporter, Bank of America, and the Los Angeles Arts Commission, through the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, who provided funding for the evening’s free concert. In symphony circles, it’s well know that CEO Unger has skillfully steered the PSO through challenging financial times over the past decade. With the help of a truly engaged Board of Directors and a dynamic Gala coordinator, Rebecca Shukam, only great times ahead are due for the PSO. (Pictured: Lora Unger, CEO, Pasadena Symphony Orchestra and POPS)

Remarks from PSO Board Member Maryam Shah Hosseini, also of Bank of America, focused on the importance of supporting the arts and Bank of America’s history of commitment to this group.

In turn, Pasadena Vice-Mayor John J. Kennedy echoed the value of the PSO to the City of Pasadena and likened the direction of the city to a musical score as he brought greetings. He also announced funding from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, made possible through the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. Together they made possible a free concert for thousands, so their support is especially appreciated by the audience who benefited. If you live in a culture-rich, arts-laden community, be grateful every single day. Pasadena residents are truly lucky.

As Concertmaster Aimee Kreston was introduced, Director of Choruses, Don Brinegar, opened the program with “The Star Spangled Banner,” which featured the combined JPL Chorus and Donald Brinegar singers, with the audience following enthusiastically. The American flag blew lightly against the gentle night breeze that was forming as the evening began its natural temperature descent. Seasoned concertgoers were prepared with blankets and wraps, and the newbies made mental notes for next year but the excitement and pace of the music kept everyone warm.

A few introductions for those who were hearing these talented musicians and singers for the first time. Orchestrator and arranger Larry Blank always delivers a beautiful program for his annual “Music Under the Stars” concert for which he serves as resident conductor among other concerts in the Pasadena Symphony and POPS series.

Talented and gracious, Blank has conducted opera stars, Broadway and television favorites, and rock stars, including Jon Bon Jovi, Robert Goulet, Johnny Mathis, Beyonce, Josh Groban, Harry Connick, Jr., Antonio Banderas, Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Marvin Hamlisch, Lucie Arnaz, and Kelsey Grammer. Equally well known in England, on stage Blank shares delightful vignettes and back stories on the songs he’s chosen. Especially relevant is the fact that so many of the arrangements he prefers are those written by his mentors and friends, which adds lovely dimension to the music.

The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra benefits from having two outstanding conductors, Michael Feinstein and Larry Blank. Mr. Feinstein has a passion for and commitment to preserving and expanding the reach of the Great American Songbook throughout every concert he designs, one that stems from his early career experience with Ira Gershin and his lifetime fascination with the songs of “the Greatest Generation” and the one that preceded it.

Mr. Blank is renowned for programming the perfectly paced evening to delight audiences, and of course for conducting the orchestra when Mr. Feinstein in singing. As orchestrator and conductor, Mr. Blank has worked with singers who are concurrently stars of screen and stage and is entirely unflappable as he immerses himself into the music, bringing out the very best in every singer who is backed by ‘his’ orchestra. It’s truly a match made in paradise.

(L to R: Larry Blank, Kiki Ebsen, Valerie Perri, and Christina Saffran, Photos courtesy of Pasadena Symphony Orchestra)

Larry Blank--One by one, Conductor Blank introduced his vocalists for the evening—Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen. Christina and Valerie are Pasadena POPS audience favorites in recent years and the 2017 concert marked Kiki’s debut with this symphony. The music, he said, “would focus primarily on George Gershwin,” with some Ella Fitzgerald classics and a few surprises to boot.

Kiki Ebsen--In her Music Under the Stars debut this evening, the stunning redhead, Kiki Ebsen, returned to her original roots of classical voice and vocal performance, from college days. The independent beauty won a national collegiate competition for original songwriting, so Kiki left opera waiting in the wings, choosing adventure as offstage keyboard player and MIDI tech for iconic band Chicago. The next 20 years, she spent internationally, on keyboards, backing and lead vocals, and songwriting. So, it’s possible you forgot that theater, jazz, the Great American Songbook, and symphonies are “home” for Kiki.

Valerie Perri--A dynamic, beautiful brunette with a smile to match the light in her eyes, Valerie Perri is equally at home on a Broadway stage or any other stage as Eva Peron in “Evita,” but she’s also been known to become Dolly Levi with panache. Equally at home on a TV soundstage, Valerie’s screen credits are impressive. Her indefatigable optimism is contagious, and she is equally introspective when focused on her music, allowing the conductor to guide the music effortlessly with her.

Christina Saffran--The lovely Christina Saffran with the long blonde tresses made her fourth “Music Under the Stars” concert appearance this evening. The Broadway star is a diverse talent who has performed in numerous national symphony orchestras as well as in her own show in Las Vegas. Plus, she’s a frequent vocal talent in Disney animation projects. Christina has a special countenance, onstage and off, which allows her to immerse herself fully in the music and bring audiences great joy as she sings delivers the music of the Great American Songbook.

The Music Begins "Fascinating Rhythm"––Valerie Perri

Opening the program was Valerie Perri, skillfully singing “Fascinating Rhythm,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Who doesn’t remember the amazing Fred and Adele Astaire in Broadway’s “Lady Be Good”? That song prepared the crowd beautifully for the evening ahead, which would be filled with great music, grand memories of the first time you’d heard the songs, and reflections on why Gershwin songs truly make up such an important part of the “Great American Songbook.”

"Where or When"––Kiki Ebsen

Rodgers and Hart (1937) created this song for the musical “Babes in Arms” and the first performance was noted as 1937 by Ray Heatherton & Mitzi Green. This song has endured for eight decades and takes on new life, with Kiki Ebsen's soulful delivery.

"Someone To Watch Over Me"––Christina Saffran

From the musical “Oh, Kay!” in 1926, with British star Gertrude Lawrence, this has been called “one of the great love songs in American musical theatre history.” Christina’s version was nothing short of magnificent, even in this abbreviated video snippet.

"A Tisket a Tasket"––Kiki Ebsen

Van Alexander, a good friend of Mr. Blank's who passed away just a few years ago, gave the world a marvelous arrangement of a song that he co-wrote with Ella Fitzgerald. Her breakout recording, when she was only 19 years old, was with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1938, but on Saturday night, 79 years later, it returned. Kiki’s version swings with joy, as she much fun singing it as Ella did delivering it. The horn section answer, following the conductor’s lead, reminds you of the grandest days of supper clubs, black tie and great entertainment nightly.

"How Long Has This Been Going On"––Valerie Perri In 1928, George and Ira Gershwin introduced this song, and it’s been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Julie London, Judy Garland, Lonette McKee, and Cher, among the myriad of singers who’ve offered their talents. Valerie Perri easily shows why it's one of her best songs.

"Ridin’ High"––Christina Saffran The ebullient talent Ethel Merman brought this Cole Porter tune to life in 1936, and Ella Fitzgerald recorded it in 1956, Peggy Lee in 1959, Doris Day in 1961, and Cleo Laine in 1971. Yet, Christina should think about recording it, as she owns the stage with the orchestra and chorus undergirding her lovely powerful vocals.

"Summertime"––Kiki Ebsen

From “Porgy and Bess,” this instantly recognizable melody from George Gershwin has two credited lyricists: DuBose Heyward (the man who wrote the novel, “Porgy”) and Ira Gershwin as well. In 1960, Leontyne Price sang it, with legendary Herbert von Karajan conducting. Naturally, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it on the Verve label. The first time I heard any non-Broadway version of this song was in 1967 when The Buckinghams (Chicago pop rock group) recorded it for their inaugural Columbia album, “Time & Charges,” in 1967. Kiki brought her own beautiful interpretation to this treasured song.

"Conductor’s Surprise"––Morton Stevens (composer)

The theme song to this TV show was written by Mort Stevens, a “prolific, Emmy-award winning film and television score composer,” and a good friend of Larry Blank. Hint: It was for a show that ran on CBS from 1968 to 1980, starring Jack Lord and James MacArthur. The show was revived by CBS in 2010 and has remained a strong part of CBS’ Friday night primetime lineup, starring Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. Pretty sure you know what it is? In introducing the song to the audience, all Mr. Blank would say as a hint was in sharing a story about his friend “Mort,” and asked the audience if they could guess the name of the song the orchestra was about to play, noting, “As Mort’s BMW license plate read, “EEGBAE.”

Mr. Blank was delighted that most of the audience was stumped as the percussion and trumpets moved right into the powerful rhythm of the opening of Morton Stevens’ fantastic song, ultimately recorded by The Ventures. Ready? Set? Book ‘em, Danno! By the way, Mr. Stevens also composed themes for other police procedurals including “Matt Helm,” and “Police Woman,” as well as being music arranger for 12 episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Mr. Stevens knew exactly what made great law enforcement themes!

"But Not For Me"––Christina Saffran

George and Ira Gershwin introduced this gem in 1930 in “Girl Crazy” and it was performed by Ginger Rogers in the musical. The beloved tune has been recorded by Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra but it was also a favorite of Ella Fitzgerald’s, as she won a Grammy for this song in 1960 for Best Female Vocal Performance on her “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook” album. Actually, Ella won 14 Grammy Awards, including “one for Lifetime Achievement” in 1967, in large part due to her interpretation of Gershwin songs among others she made her own.

"Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off"––Valerie Perri and Kiki Ebsen

First known as a song strongly identified with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (on roller skates) in the 1937 movie, “Shall We Dance,” this George and Ira Gershwin song was another favorite among Ella Fitzgerald recordings, as she lent her own inimitable style to create her own hit song. Valerie and Kiki have much fun with this tune and agree to “call the calling-off off”—there’s something special about the beauty of musical treasures--they're simply timeless.

"Somewhere over The Rainbow"––Kiki Ebsen

Kiki Ebsen’s magnificent rendition of the Harold Arlen classic from “The Wizard Oz” (1939). It’s been a favorite for 78 years, but most relevant is that it was chosen by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) as the “#1 Song of the 20th Century and by the American Film Institute (AFI) as “the Greatest Movie Song Ever.” Beyond this accolade, it’s a poignant song for Kiki and holds very special meaning.

"The Man I Love"––Christina Saffran This song has a fun history thanks to Ira Gershwin’s “Lyrics on Several Occasions,” which noted that the song ‘almost’ made it into several shows it was planned for. The original version, “The Girl I Love,” has been recorded by Michael Feinstein, and the best-known ‘next’ version, “The Man I Love,” (from web site,

“…the refrain of "The Man I Love" began as the introduction or verse to another, never completed song, a song that he can't even recall, a song written, according to George's notebooks, between April 4, and April 24, 1924. The music for this verse had, as the brothers both recognized, such an "insistent" quality about it that they agreed it should be used for something more than just an introduction. In other words, it was too good to be just a verse, so it was converted into a refrain, the main portion, for a completely new song that turned out to be "The Man I Love." (That this happened was proved when Michael Feinstein, working as an archivist for Ira Gershwin in 1982, found George's manuscripts for the song in a storage facility in Secaucus, NJ.)”

Not only did Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Tucker, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn record this song, in 1999 Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell also recorded it! Christina’s version is show-stopping of its own accord.

"Time Heals Everything"––Valerie Perri

This is a Jerry Herman song from the musical “Mack and Mabel,” that Valerie has sung before and it’s clear why it’s “her song,” as her delivery and interpretation are powerful and convincing. Not only has Michael Feinstein recorded the song, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, and the iconic Eydie Gorme (whose version was previously my favorite, until hearing Ms. Perri sing it) have made it their own. That’s one of the exciting things about Broadway musicals; each performer brings their own style to create an entirely new song.

"Boy What Love Has Done To Me"––Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen

This George and Ira Gershwin song has resonated throughout the decades as the different combinations of hearts and minds seek and find one another to come together as a couple, no matter how unlikely the pairings. The trio was charming in their trading verses and blending on the chorus. These dynamic singers can deliver upbeat fun verses with equal panache. Although it was the final song, clearly no one wanted to go home, so Mr. Blank and the orchestra delivered the perfect encore song to cap off the evening’s selections.

"I Got Rhythm–-Encore"––Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen

The finale to this resplendent program was this final George and Ira Gershwin song, from “Girl Crazy,” launched in 1930. “When George Gershwin conducted the music at the premiere…the orchestra, the Red Nichols Band, among others included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa.” The Pasadena Symphony POPS did the masters proud under Larry Blank’s baton. That’s the true measure of music excellence when a song can endure for decades and be a solid rock hit as well (remember the group The Happenings (1967) recording? It sold over 1,000,000 copies, and is still one of their most popular songs in concert today as they continue to tour. Check out this evening's rendition and hear how the chorus brought added charm to the performances. Especially in the rhythm section did the orchestra shine brightly. The three vocalists clearly enjoyed this song as they combined their exceptional voices on the final notes, bringing the crowd to another standing ovation as another great Music Under the Stars program was "one for the books."

(L to R: Valerie Perri, Larry Blank, Kiki Ebsen, and Christina Saffran, photo from on Kiki Ebsen's Facebook page.)

More Music from These Artists

If this was your first introduction to these beautiful, talented singers, you can hear more from them. Check out Christina Saffran’s “Temporary Insanity” on Amazon, and enjoy “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and the title track, among many others. Valerie’s CD, “Sweet Conversation” is available on iTunes and includes “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and “Almost Like Being in Love,” among some of her signature songs. Another personal favorite is her version of “Secret o’ Life.” Kiki’s CDs, including her most recent release “Scarecrow Sessions,” are all available on her web site. On “Scarecrow Sessions her version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is magnificent, as is her take on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Larry Blank’s recordings can be found here, and his conducting calendar can be found here.

Special Thanks Are Due

The outstanding pre-concert publicity (thank you to the tremendous marketing and PR by General Manager, Drew Flaherty and Marisa McCarthy, Director of Marketing & Public Relations) was responsible for the record crowd, as far as the eyes could see. They proved a fantastic audience, attentive during the music and expressive only in their rousing applause for the selections during the evening. That is not always the case when thousands are gathered as I’ve experienced, more times than I care to recount, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, Texas.

The Los Angeles Times and other area publications were filled with beautiful reminders, from the very earliest times, so people had this date circled on their calendar for over a month. No maximum capacity crowd generates on its own accord—it’s dedicated professionals working behind the scenes to make the magic happen.

Coming Up Next — Tickets & Gifts of Love

The Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena POPS are the inaugural part of the full POPS subscription season, with concerts taking place typically at the L.A. County Arboretum. This summer, music lovers can expect nothing but great music all summer long. The 2017 Sierra Summer Concert Series runs from June 17 – September 9, starting with “Broadway: The Golden Age” with honoree Liza Minnelli and soloist Storm Large, conducted by Michael Feinstein, Principal Pops Conductor and holder of the Tom and Erika Girardi Chair. “Live at the Arboretum” with Leann Rimes on July 8 The Midtown Men (Music from Jersey Boys and Beyond) July 15, conducted by Larry Blank, and Michael Feinstein Sings & Swings” on July 29th, conducted by Larry Blank.

If you’re anywhere near Pasadena, California this summer and year-round, get your tickets early. Visit for information, and please consider a donation to their Annual Fund in honor or memory of someone you love, because there’s nothing quite like the gift of music, particularly for the person who has everything.

In all, it was a very special evening for the audience from the vocalists, the choralists, the Pasadena Symphony POPS Orchestra, conductor Larry Blank, the City of Pasadena, the Bank of America and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission through the L.A. Board of Supervisors.