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.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Long, Long Corridor to Delivering a Message of Love

Yesterday, June 5, 2017, marked the 102nd anniversary of the day my “buddy” Mildred Kennedy was born. I’m sure there were fireworks the day she entered the world, even if it wasn’t a national holiday. If there weren’t, there should have been.

Having been out of town on business on her actual birthday, I wanted to visit Mildred today, since it had been Valentine’s Day since I’d last visited. Each time for the past several years when I’ve visited her, Mildred has been sitting upright in her wheelchair, serenely, whether watching the endless loop of CNN News on the TV screen or in the community dining room of her senior residence here in Bryan.

Mildred had “introduced” me to a new friend many years ago. As she is a private person, and would likely not speak to me if she saw her name in my blog, let’s just call her Redbird because that was the thing that Mildred knew we had in common.

All my life, beautiful songs of the cardinals floating through the air seemed to underscore my life’s journey. Whenever I look around during special times, I see the redbirds so fancied by many for the same reason. There’s legend or myth that says that the presence of a cardinal is akin to an angelic presence of a loved one around you, a sign of sorts that someone in Heaven is thinking of you.

About 10 years ago, Mildred told me she had a friend who wrote beautiful poems—loved, loved, loved—cardinals, and was a true friend of faith to her in a Women’s Bible Study group that Mildred attended across town at another church. Understand that Mildred didn’t drive after a certain age, but she never failed to have 10 or more people fighting over giving a ride to her, so there wasn’t any place she could not find her way to reach. Faithfully she attended the Bible Study, and it was there she made dear friends with “Redbird.”

However, lest you think it was devoted friendship at first sight—forget about that. Mildred was, and could be, the inspiration of terror and fear, if you thought anyone knew the Bible better than she did. Mildred knew the Bible better than some ministers, because she studied it a bazillion years, and the ministers took her corrections in good humor (most of the time). So, too, did her Bible Study partners.

When I was in Bible studies with Mildred in our home church, I wasn’t intimated by her. I already knew I had minuscule knowledge compared to hers, so it was natural to defer to her as the go-to resource. But now the Baptists knew it, too, ha! It just took a while for people not to be afraid of being corrected by her. Once they got used to her shaking her index finger to make a point now and then, all was well.

One year, Mildred gifted me with a copy of a Christmas poem that Redbird had written, and it was so beautiful it moved me to tears. I thought, “Gosh, what a great writer and poet!” Mildred said, “One of these days I’ll introduce you to her.” That happened about two years later when our church had a “Candlelight to Bethlehem” function near Christmastime. Mildred hosted a table and invited “Redbird,” me, and five more friends. The two of us were not sitting directly next to each other so it was not then that we began talking. It was just the first introduction.

In fact, it would be another 10 years before another conversation. When Mildred’s health had reached the point that she was formally admitted to Hospice care, I called Redbird to let her know what I knew early, as the Methodists were not as prompt as the Baptists when it comes to sharing information as a caring community and reaching out so all can know, love, and pray. Twenty years ago, I’d have put our prayer chain calling group up against any church’s but almost all those former members of the prayer chain (save for Mildred and another best friend) have gone on to their Heavenly reward. So, I called to make sure she wasn't last to know.

In these past seven months that Mildred has lived in the state of Hospice care at her nursing home, her transition has been a graceful and gentle decline. In the past year, because I saw her every week of my life for so many years, I found it harder to get over there to visit her at her nursing facility. With a great internal argument about how hard it would be on me to see her “like that” it was easy to find four months flying by. Seems the fear of saying goodbye, even if she was over 100 and the logic that tells us her time would soon be ending, remained strong, I really had to talk myself into it hard, harder, hardest.

Of course, after I arrived, with lots of cupcakes or flowers for the staff and fellow residents in the dining room area, I just beamed to see her doing better than I’d ever envisioned—Christmas 2016 and Valentine’s 2017. But, I skipped St. Patrick’s Day and Easter this year, telling myself that I had too many things to do. I actually did have too many things to “say grace over,” but in my heart of hearts, I knew I was nothing but a big chicken and simply couldn’t face making time to see her because it could be “the last time.”

Time passed…until yesterday. On Mildred’s actual birthday, in an early morning stroll up a steep hill I was unfamiliar with, I found myself taking smaller steps and not going that fast as I made continued deliberate progress. My walking partner could have left me in her dust, but she kept pace with me and stopped when I stopped, all along the path, without calling attention to that fact. I looked up and said, “Sorry to be so pokey.” She said, “No, you go at your own pace. I’ll wait for you.” I smiled, rested, and got back on the path.

Last week, I’d checked in with Redbird a few days ago and we’d made plans for lunch today. It almost didn’t happen because of crazy schedules, but I had really hoped we’d keep the time as planned. As our lunch concluded today, I said I was heading over to see Mildred, asking if she’d like to come with me. She looked up and immediately, without realizing it, said, “Yes, I would, but I don’t know exactly where it is, and I’m dealing with a knee injury and not able to walk long distances without a cane right now.”

I said, “I know where she is, why don’t we go together?” Certain that she was facing the same level of mixed emotions at what visiting Mildred could be—for the last time—I said, “It will help me if we go together this time.” I meant it, plus I had really wanted to bring Mildred a special present—“Redbird.” It’s one of those instincts I had, can’t explain it, but I knew full well that the labyrinthine layout of the nursing/rehab/caregiving multiplex makes it a true barrier to want to go visit anyone there if it’s just you alone.

Delighted at her acceptance, we made our way over there and after one false start, located Mildred in the room she shared. She was fast asleep. Redbird said, “Don’t wake her up, let her sleep” and I said, “Nope, just give her a second, she’ll sense we’re here and as we speak a little, she’ll hear our voices.”

Bravely, Redbird said, “Mildred, it’s ‘Redbird,’ your Bible study friend,” and that was all it took. Mildred’s eyes opened, she turned her head left (and I was on the other side) and smiled when she saw a friend smiling back at her. She couldn’t speak in words, but her eyes spoke volumes. Redbird continued, “I’m here with Dawn, another of your friends; we’re here to tell you Happy Birthday!”

As Mildred continued looking left, I got up and said, “I’ll come over so you only have one place to look.” Gently, Redbird reached over and touched Mildred’s shoulder gently. She gently shared with Mildred many of the fun, wonderful memories of Bible Study together and reminded her of all of the verses that Mildred had given her through the years. “I’ve marked my Bible “MK” with each of the verses you’ve given me.” I didn’t add it but I remembered the wonderful volumes of faith that she’s gifted me with through the years.

We searched her walls to see what was on display, looking specifically for pictures of angels that Mildred loved and collected. There weren’t many, perhaps a likely indication of her inability to recognize and appreciate their significance, although there are at least two there on her corkboard frame. Redbird added, “I remember how much you love your angels.”

On the table nearest the end of the bed was a beautiful bouquet of flowers with red roses included. There was also an unlikely faux-jeweled crown, fit for a princess, on the table next to the vase of flowers. No doubt a souvenir of a formal celebration yesterday on her “real” birthday.

The one-way conversation continued between Redbird and Mildred. Soothing tones, sweet words, and lots of love and caring in the emotions that flew by in just a few moments. Suddenly I announced, “I brought you Redbird as your present, Mildred, so let’s sing you Happy Birthday!” Without missing a beat, we broke into song and Mildred paid careful attention, and we also found a snippet of another song to sing her. Deciding to take our show on the road, or, leave Mildred to rest, we concluded our visit. I snapped a few photos and am only sharing one, preserving Redbird’s love of privacy yet showing the look of love in Mildred’s eyes. I was delighted that I found the perfect birthday present to take Mildred, literally.

Then we said our final goodbyes, knowing that in fact and for certain that it would likely be our final goodbyes. There being no outward sign of that forecast, it was just a sense of finality that overwhelmed me as we left the room she shared (separated by curtains) with two other women).

The joke of the day was on us, however, and that was the fact that whomever designed this healthcare metroplex was either a blooper or purposeful to prevent easy escape for the residents; either way, it was a complex design of architectural mystery. You enter the building, walk a little, get on the elevator, go up one floor, then you go down the hall a little way, then ‘round the corner and…that was just to get in. However, to leave, there’s a problem if you don’t retrace your steps exactly. We didn’t. That was the problem.

No one felt worse than I did when I realized that we were in a state of “lost” that would require 15 minutes and the guidance of at least five employees helping us find our way. There are at least two-and-a-half entrances over there. But recall, my friend Redbird was nursing a recovering knee injury and walking long distances is not on her “to-do” list for recuperation.

As we walked hopefully down hallway after hallway, she’d pause and say, “I need to stop for a minute,” yet she was the best trooper. Rather than giving me “what-for” not knowing the way out, she was regretting slowing me down. I said, “There is no need to apologize, as I really understand the need to find your own pace. Believe me!”

Just 24 hours earlier, I was on the other end of my fading strength, being encouraged and uplifted by a trusted friend saying I could do it. Eventually we made it to the car, cranked up the AC to combat the 95% humidity that was classic Texas style. I really admired my new friend for persevering beyond her knee pain to share her love with Mildred.

Lessons from the day, then, were numerous. First, whenever we face a difficult task, one we fear, such as saying a potential final farewell to a dear, dear friend, we need not be alone when we do it. The presence of a trusted friend, whether brand new or longtime BFF, gives you the strength you need when you need it most.

Second, never fear saying goodbye. Instead, say “I love you” and don’t worry about how much time a person you love has left on Earth. Don’t project the “We only have X more years left on the planet.” Instead, just show love every day and the rest will take care of itself.

Third, there is no better present one friend can give to another than time. Fact. No Neiman-Marcus box or Tiffany bow carries the value outside that a loving heart of a faithful friend carries inside. It’s true that one day, Mildred won’t be among us anymore. That’s a fact, too. But, in the meantime, it’s a good thing to remember that we, on this side of the labyrinth of life, still have the freedom to navigate (successfully or otherwise) on “this” side of the small bed reined in by sliding curtain and drywall with a corkboard frame on the wall.

And yet, without a word today, Mildred was a living lesson in faith to two friends who’d come to sing her into her 102nd year. Gosh, she’s good! Then again, never underestimate the power of love.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Power and Poignancy of a Simple Hello

In the community of Bryan-College Station, a place I love to call my very own Mayberry, there's a special significance about living here as your new home, and meeting people who have lived here all their lives. You'll spend about 30 years before you're no longer a newcomer (only because you have not met everyone yet), but after a while you start to recognize folks as you drive along Texas Avenue or Villa Maria, and you wave as you drive by, and you smile, and even roll down the car window and talk at red lights. It's a special place.

Everyone has opinions of their hometowns and neighborhoods, but my bias and fondness has developed over four decades of "growing up here," so if longevity is a criterion for validating my firmly held opinion, then I'll continue.

Opening today's edition of "The Eagle" online, my first thought was to check the obituaries. I saw the lovely photo of Mrs. Lou Presnal there and I just had to stop and stare. Could it be? I just saw her....and with that, my mind raced back to the last time I saw her. It was the same evening that I last saw Joe Hanover and it was at Bryan's Longhorn Tavern Steakhouse.

Now, please know that I did not know Mrs. Presnal personally at all, but for years I'd seen her when I attended an occasional early service at church. She and her husband, a beloved veterinarian, would enjoy the early service as many others did. I was generally a late service person, as was Joe, so you know how it goes. But she had an unmistakable gracious countenance about her. She was always dressed so neatly, everything in place, but in a way that was authentic. It was just who she was.

What was so poignant about the evening of March 31, 2017, was that I had a chance to witness a most special exchange of friendly words between two people who clearly had no idea that they would wind up greeting each other in Heaven (if you'll allow me my faith construct) just eight short weeks later. It was surreal.

This is how the evening went. I'd arrived early and was visiting with Joe Hanover's "42 Group" from Dallas that evening, and I went to the front door of Longhorn Tavern to greet Joe and Michelle. I spotted Lou and Sonny Presnal at the booth in Longhorn that had been a favorite of Netta and John Simek's all these years. I smiled when I saw them there, even if they didn't know me from Adam's off ox.

As Joe and Michelle made their way into the Longhorn, all the servers greeted "Mr. Hanover" by name and welcomed him. Seven beaming employees knew him well and loved him. When the business was owned and operated by Rita Whitley, Joe loved to tell the story about how she told him to "Park anywhere you want" and he did as she instructed.

These days, the second generation is running the business and doing a fine job of keeping crowds happy and fed without a lot of waiting. As Joe was greeted, he passed by the Presnal's table but there were many people behind him headed to the party room. I was the one closest to Mrs. Presnal at that point when she said, "Is that Joe Hanover? I must tell him hello! I'd heard he'd been in the hospital and I'm so glad he's here tonight!" She immediately excused herself from her dinner and went to shake his hand warmly, and she was joined by her husband as the three exchanged such beautiful pleasantries, old friends, church members together, likely the veterans of more than a few committees together. As she made her way back to her table, I couldn't help myself. I just had to say something to her. I don't recall introducing myself by name but what I said was, "Mrs. Presnal, you don't know me but I've seen you at a distance for years in church and I just have to say that you are one of the most classic beauties I've ever seen. You remind me somewhat of Princess Grace." And I said, "I just had to tell you that, and I'll let you get back to your evening." She was so modest and thanked me and I said, "You've always had a special countenance about you."

The joy on her face seeing Joe there that night was something hard to quantify. It was a supreme sense of joy I sensed about her, at seeing an old friend after a long time not having been in the same place at the same time. The only word I can offer is "magic." There was a sense of magic in the air. In a day and time when we all get so caught up in busy-ness, to be able to truly rejoice at the good fortune of our friends, like regained health, really left an impression on me.

I promptly forgot about that exchange until this morning, when I opened the paper and saw Mrs. Lou Presnal's obituary tribute. And then my mind flashed back to the fact that it was March 31, 2017 when I last saw Joe and I last saw Mrs. Presnal. What I did see was two old friends greeting each other with grace and dignity and such great regard and respect for one another in a fashion that it was exceptional to watch. Both so happy to see each other doing well. Neither one of them had a clue what the next eight weeks would bring. I had no way of knowing what the health statuses were, truly, of either party. Yet, rather than worrying about health, they were busy living life to the fullest.

Eight short weeks. To the day. We do not know what tomorrow brings. We cannot know. But I always want to remember their smiles when two longtime friends had the chance to see one another in good times. Somehow it's a safe guess that some 56 short days later, the reunion was even better the second time around.

It's a warm and friendly reminder that we need to make time for the things we want to do and the people we truly want to be with. And, as I sit in reflection today, eight weeks ago I think I saw the magic in a genuine "Hello, old friend" and how good it feels to have friends whom we are always delighted to see. Another life lesson in Panavision and Technicolor, courtesy of General Joe Hanover. God bless Joe, God bless Mrs. Presnal, and God bless our dear Mayberry, where people take the time to know you.