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The Man in the Brown Flannel Shirt

Dad had a faded flannel shirt that was varying shades of soft brown. It was worn and comfortable and had seen a thousand Saturday mornings of yard work, digging in the garden, and making mountains of waffles on the griddle. Dad believed with his whole being, in the ritual of Saturday morning waffles. He would make dozens of them and then freeze them for our own personal waffle stash. As a family, we may have been clipping coupons and shopping consignment, but we were rich in love and waffles. Even on busy school mornings we could make a sizable withdrawal at the bank of frozen waffles and get that treasured taste of a suspended Saturday morning just by popping a couple of waffles in the toaster.

Dad had brown eyes and a winning smile and the kind of hopeful disposition that made people follow him. His bright expression was punctuated by thick rimmed glasses that helped to define his face. This was important because Pops was completely bald. Like, cue ball bald. Dad had alopecia, which means he lost most of his hair when my twin sister, Leah and I were just toddlers. To this day I organize the pictures of my father into two different categories. There’s the “Young Dad” with a full head of hair from the early days and then there’s the “Mr. Clean” looking father that starred in all the pictures after 1989. He made the best of it and imitated Yul Brenner’s performance in the King and I on a regular basis. It’s funny how a person can look so different and so similar to themselves from one season to the next.

When I look through photo albums of years past, I recognize his familiar beaming smile and formidable life force even under the full head of hair and goatee. When I flip through pages that chronicle his time in the Penn State Glee Club or his summer as a dishwasher at Lake Tahoe, I can see a person I did not know, but also recognize very much. The pages of the photo album are stiff and slightly yellowed with age. In the pictures, He is surrounded by the faces of friends that I never met with his goatee and sideburns that I do not remember. It makes me wonder. His seemingly endless energy is visible in the pictures. He looks like he could transcend the page. He always looked like that. An air of possibility and measured mischief surrounded him in the youthful snapshots. There were friends gathered nearby. People were always around him. He always had that kind of magnetic draw, I guess.

As kids, we felt it too. It was more than charisma. It was heart and gravity. He was goofy and loving and the first in line to make fun of himself. When he drove me and my sister to the hair salon, he would tip his hat in a cheeky manner; addressing the stylist while asking if she could fit him into her schedule. “A little off the top?” he would say as he patted his shiny bald head. Dad loved terrible jokes and hopeless puns. He felt that it was his duty and his privilege to share these jokes with the world. Most of the time my sister and I would roll our eyes painfully, but we knew with the most sure and steadfast knowing, that our dad was the best kind of unordinary. We knew we had it good.

Dad had perfect pitch. This means that if you gave him the name of a note, he could hear it’s clear tone in his head without a piano or pitch pipe. It also worked in reverse. When he directed the bell choir at church, he could turn around and walk to the other side of the room and tell you what bell was ringing. The church had 9 octaves of bells and he wasn’t even phased. He would just hear the tone and spout off “F2, C#5, B7” naming the note, accidental, and octave instantly.

Pitch wizard.

He was one of the most talented musicians I have ever met, but that was only one of his defining features. He cared about people. He really cared. He wanted everyone to have access to song. Access to their voice. He said it was the one instrument you could take with you wherever you go. It was his mission to make sure everyone knew the power of the breath in their lungs and the song they could offer. He was a passionate educator. The kind of music teacher that leaves an impression on the psyche of their students. The legacy lives on unquestionably.

He worked for 11 years in the city schools of Harrisburg. He directed a choir for middle school boys. It was a great group of kids. I remember going to see them in concert when I was a kid. The boys wore black pants, white shirts, and red ties for performances. Many of them came from low-income families so the boys did not always have what they needed. Dad would always fill a big paper grocery bag with red ties to take to school, so everyone had a tie on stage. He made sure of it. They looked great under those lights. They sounded great too. They sounded sure. I don’t remember what they sang, but I remember their confidence. He had them dancing. He had them signing. He made sure they knew how to use their voice. He was a champion for the underdog and an advocate for expression. They stood at the ready under his direction. Proud of who they were and the sound they could make. It was beautiful.

There was a time when Dad had a blind student join the choir. Dad wanted to make sure that the boy had his own music just like everyone else. So, Dad learned braille. He then translated the music and punched in little dots under every musical phrase on the sheet music. This meant that he had to learn the letters and then punch them in backwards so that they were correct on the top side of the music. Hand punching every dot to every letter on every page with a sharpened wooden dowel. It took him hours, but in the end that kid had music. That one story holds more punch than some people give to their lifetime. It is more than dedication in motion. It’s about love.

A musician to his core, he was a vocalist, performer, storyteller, composer, conductor. I was told a hundred times over that he learned to read music before he could read words. He took piano lessons from a sweet lady in his neighborhood when he was a kid. At one lesson he wasn’t getting the rhythm of the melody quite right and she told him “It follows the pattern of the words. Just play it like you would read the words.” As the story was retold to me over and over, he apparently laughed at her with a quizzical look on his smiling upturned face and said “But, I can’t read!”

He grew up singing in church and in school and then made his way to Penn State University for continued training. He was a featured soloist in the Penn State Glee Club and a master of the voice. There was a kind of approachable richness that lived in his tone. He was fully dedicated to the craft of music and service. So much so that the gold lettering on his Methodist Hymnal was rubbed to a dusty silver on the letters ``H `` and''y ``. that kind of loving wear and tear only happens when you open the hymnal in your palm a thousand times and turn to a page to sing. This was the voice I grew up hearing. Full of care and conviction. His was the voice that narrated my childhood. Every now and then I pull out the records from the Glee Club’s summer tour through Europe. I put the needle on the section of vinyl that contains Dad's voice - somehow still alive in that sonic time capsule. I turn up the volume and lay on the couch and wait for the inevitable tears to roll down my face. I feel them slide down my cheek and onto the pillow. My grandma used to say that Dad was not just a singer; he told stories with his voice. How I miss his kind of storytelling.

As a kid, I would paint or draw and get lost in the movements of the pencil or the brushstrokes on the page. The movement of the pigment on paper was compelling to me. I got lost in the saturation of color. Fiercely quiet as a child; my mother recognized that I needed artwork as an outlet for expression. If I seemed like I needed a release she would plop me down in front of a pile of art supplies and watch me scribble and scribble until my hands were covered in marker and I was calmer.

After a particularly busy afternoon as a childhood artist I wanted to show the product of my work to my dad for his appraisal. I left the sprawl of supplies and papers at my coffee table workstation and ran over to him at the piano. He pivoted on the piano bench and beamed at my new creation. My parents were always generous with their praise and affection and I was happy to share my new artwork with him. The picture was colored to look like mountains with rolling hills and the most majestic skyline I could muster as a kid. Dad told me the picture was beautiful and then he asked, “Do you want to know what it sounds like?” I eagerly smiled and nodded in reply.

He took my drawing and turned back to the upright piano. I stepped in a little closer. He placed the picture on the piano and ceremoniously smoothed it out with his fingers as it if were a fine musical work. He then started to play. It was a tune that I did not recognize with my little toddler ears. To this day I will never know what he played. If it was something he wrote right then, or before, or something pulled from another composer. It sounded both close and far away. The notes existed swirling to life in a place both ethereal and familiar. It felt like he played forever. When I think of it now it feels like he still could be playing. Somehow.

In that precious moment I stood, fixated at the side of the piano. Held by the music and the wonder and the protective border of radiance that resonated from the light atop that precious instrument. The notes lived as an extension of him. Nothing could touch me within that protective bubble of a memory. No ill could come within that sacred space of magic and childhood. How lucky I am to know what it sounds like to hear mountains scribbled on a page. How precious it is to remember such an ordinary day in which the extraordinary passed through.

Always immersed in the craft - he played his music at house-rocking decibels. He sang German Opera while unloading the dishwasher. He was prone to speeding down the highway if the music on the stereo demanded it. The 1812 overture went about 85 miles an hour before he realized how fast he was going and pulled his foot from the gas. I guess some melodies just cause a lead foot. He employed a massive soundtrack when he sat down at the desk in the kitchen every Saturday to balance the checkbook. All that accounting must have been a very painful experience for him, and he must have wanted the rest of us to suffer in solidarity - because he would play Carmina Barana until the house would shake.

Efficiency was at a minimum because he would stop his calculations to conduct his favorite parts, which was basically the whole damn thing. If you do not know that work, just know that clips of O Fortuna are used in movie soundtracks when the audience needs to know that the world is absolutely ending. My mother would look at him with a sideways glance and implore him with a simple and patient “Douglas…”. The end of that sentence was silent and suspended, but what it meant was that the rest of the mere mortals in the house did not have a constant symphony playing in their heads at all times and that they could not continue to survive with the music at the current volume.

He honestly just did not know. He did not know what it was like to have a silent world around him; without unwritten notes hanging above his head like ripe and ready fruit from the sacred composer tree. He embodied an extraordinary cache of musicality. It was coiled like a spring inside his core and was always at the ready to dispatch. And I swear on my childhood church choir robe; number S:28, no one could conduct like him. No one. The notes were articulated in the way he bounced and pointed his toes. The heartbreak and determination of a crescendo was written all over his face. He would dig into the down beat of a song with his baton in a way that looked like he was furiously scooping the most persistent brand of peanut butter and when he cued your voice part it felt as if the whole world might damn near fall apart if you didn’t hit your entrance.

The truth is: he was born to be a conductor. He was born to shape the melody. Because people followed him. Because he was fearless and vibrant in concert. Because when his alarm clock rang in the morning, he knew his purpose. He was here for the music. He had a level of conviction and goodness that I have rarely seen in another. As a kid, I looked up at the endearing and kooky individual that was my Dad and knew how lucky I was. I just knew it. I felt it in the way he flipped stacks and stacks of waffles on a Saturday morning. I felt it in the way he sang lullabies to us at night. I felt it in the way he played his music way too loud. I thank God every day that when I stumbled down the stairs on those long-ago Saturday mornings, I was greeted by the open smile of the man in the brown flannel shirt.

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