(Written in September 2002)

Thursday evening I was in the middle of teaching private voice, piano and saxophone lessons when I received Emails from my mother and sister telling me that Mr. Brugger had passed away.  Though not terribly surprised by the news, I was still quite sad. As my student continued playing through her lesson, a kaleidoscope of memories began turning.

My first memory of Mr. Brugger was at the T-Way parking lot as a very small child. My grandmother, Donna, Barmes, use to ride me on her bicycle a good deal, and one of our favorite jaunts in the summer was to watch the Panter Band practice.  The early images must have had a strong impact on me as I later served as the Panther Band Drum-major throughout my high school career.  It was during those years in the late 1960’s that I first heard Mr. Brugger sing “Old Man River.”

In 1975, two phenomenal teachers entered my life – Garnetta and Clifford Brugger.  Mrs. Brugger was my fifth grade teacher, and Mr. Brugger, having retired from the high school, came into our music class each week to teach songs and tell stories.  He would lead us in several favorite American folk songs, and then stop to tell us a joke or a story, complete with various voices and theatrics.  One day, someone asked why we sang “those old songs.”  With a reassuring smile, Mr. Brugger explained that in other countries around the world, folks songs were vital to the people’s history because they told stories of the people of their land.  He felt, that as an American, we should all value our own musical heritage.   To this day, American folk songs are a part of my teaching repertoire.

Toward the end of the year, I wrote a note to Mr. Brugger with a special request, and sent it home via his wife.  His last day he was with us at Washington Elementary School, he honored my request.  I can remember the school secretary, Jan Helpling, slipping in through the coat hall… Diana Lane, the fourth grade teacher (and also one of my favorites), joined her… Mrs. Brugger, holding a cup of coffee slipped in beside them… Mr. Brugger’s voice filled the entire building with the rich strains of “Old Man River.”

Throughout my junior high and senior high years, Mr. Brugger was one of my biggest supporters.  Whether attending an Elwood HS Variety Show – his own legacy and gift to our community – or giving me a nod along the parade route, he always made sure I knew how proud he was of my work.  The crowning moment came when he saw me after a performance of OKALHOMA! and compared my performance to that of Gordon MacRae who portrayed “Curly” in the motion picture.

Upon my return visits to my family over the years, I knew that if we went to Jim Dandy for breakfast, I would get to see Mr. Brugger.  He never failed to recognize me, and always insisted I tell him everything I was doing with my own music career as a band & choir director, and performer.

My last student this evening came into my studio and announced that he had decided to go to Ball State University next fall to major in music education. Although he is not my first student to go into music, his timing was perfect.  As Brian warmed up on his saxophone, I was so happy Clifford Brugger made such an impression me twenty-eight years ago.  I was even more appreciative that he also had an impact on his own student, Paula Simmons, who was my junior high and high school band and choir director.

When my student left, I sent my newly adopted thirteen year old son outside to walk our dog.  I sat down at my piano and began playing and singing.  It was a tender moment without great emotion.  It was a moment of thanksgiving, and celebration.  The lyrics flowed easily…

“Ol’ man river, that ol’ man river,

He mus’ know sumpin’ but don’t say nuthin’

He jes’ keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’t plant taters, he don’t plant cotton

An’ dem dat plants ‘em is soon forgotten,

But ol’ man river, he jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

I git weary an’ sick of tryin’

I’m tired of livin’ an’ skeered of dyin’

But ol’ man river, he jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

Our beloved maestro has laid down his baton at last, yet his music “keeps on rollin’” within our memories, and our hearts.  Where ever you are, Mr. Brugger, thank you, and God bless.

[April 2003, Paula Simmons invited me back to Elwood Community High School to perform, “Old Man River,” in honor of Mr. Brugger.  This was, and will always be, one of my greatest honors.]

Darin as Panther Band drum-major

Darin performing "Old Man River" - 2003

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