It was a lonely walk I took this afternoon. A quiet breeze whispered in the chill air, wintered leaves brushed by…and there was sadness afloat in my heart. I started off…..but my buddy was not with me. Ronn Huff was my friend, mentor and next-door neighbor. He’d been dealing with Parkinson’s for over 24 years, and today his struggle was over…..so I took this walk in his honor.
Along the way, I remembered our times together. We’d meet in the alley behind our homes and head down the street. Early on, the pace was brisk and full of vigor, but later…his steps faltered from time to time as we walked through our beautiful neighborhood. Occasionally he would grow frustrated because his mind would not cooperate and let him speak. He tried to get a word out, but to no avail. We’d wait a few seconds and then his sentences would come pouring out once again.
Here were two old men bragging about their hearing aids, yet both having difficulty understanding each other, but neither letting on. I loved to tease him. “You’re looking good today, Ronn…I mean…considering what you got to work with”…He’d turn and grin. We talked about life perspectives, politics, music and old friends. He kept walking, working in his yard and not taking a bow to this cruel malady. I would receive a call on his good days, and if I was home, we’d venture out together or he would move on without me. Most amazingly, I never heard him complain. It was what it was. He was stoic, and he let life come to him with all its fury and sweetness.
The most enjoyable times with Ronn were listening to our favorite classical works, reminiscing about projects on which we worked together, like the trip to London with our wives to record “Saviour”, or enjoying the CD compilations of his lifetime work. He told me he didn’t like anything he’d written…..but as we sat listening, absorbing some of the brilliant beauty of his work…..I saw him smile, conducting in that chair of his…nodding in approval from time to time.
I thought back to our history. I remember sitting in my office at First United Methodist Church in Bismarck, North Dakota and being mesmerized by his work in the first printable orchestration I’d ever seen. It was “Alleluia” a work written by Gloria and Bill Gaither. I followed him from a distance when he was at “The Chapel on Fir Hill” in Akron, Ohio and later, Calvary Temple in Denver, Colorado. He had no formal training and after his initial foray into orchestrating, he spent a period of time at Columbia University studying scores, working with conductors and listening to rehearsals of various groups before returning to Nashville.
We both had strong sensibilities about what we were after musically, and we did have our moments of disagreement, but what I always appreciated was the freedom and safety we both felt to state our case. Make no mistake about it, I was always the student and respect for Ronn ran with wide swath. He could see things musically that I felt, but did not know how to express. He did. We both were prone to go with our gut, looking for what we thought was best for the artist and the material. I can’t begin to express the joy I felt when we worked together. The wise sage and an ADHD race horse.
My children and grandchildren loved and revered Ronn. On hearing the news of his imminent passing, Sarah told her children on the way home from school. Tessa, the youngest at 6 years old would not be consoled and cried all the way home, as did her older sister, Blythe and Sarah.. They recounted to their mother how Ronn had given them chocolates at Easter last year and how kind he was to talk to them. Tessa blurted out as she wept…”But I loved his hugs the best!!!” It was not the music for them…it was a beautiful man… with the most beautiful heart. Sarah was a babysitter for Dann and Sherri as a teenager. Our family’s love for Ronn, Donna and the boys runs deep.
He was as ferocious in his love for his wife, Donna, the boys and their families as they were for him. He was so proud of his children and grandchildren and excitedly told me about their lives and many accomplishments. There are countless stories of Donna and Ronn showing up at hospitals to encourage and support…or helping friends in need in any number of situations
This was a vibrant man with a passion for excellence that never just “settled”. Up until it was time to record, his scores were always subject to revision.He’d often tear up what he’d written and start again. Ronn was old school…and always wrote to paper, not computer based Finale. He was as persistent in exercising, learning and growing as he was with his intentional kindness.
He said he’d never see 80, but this Friday past, March 16th…he made it. Just two days before he journeyed on, Pam and I visited him at the hospice center. He was not responsive, his breathing labored and I glimpsed a wash cloth that cooled his brow. I drew close to his ear and read the letter that I’d sent him years before. I don’t know if he heard me…maybe did. No matter what, those final moments with him were tender…healing …comforting.
How do I begin to convey to you what you mean to me? When I met you, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Your musicianship was understood, but there was so much more. For me, our relationship has been a symbiotic flow of musicality, philosophy and openness. You challenged my spiritual presuppositions. As I spent time with you, I began my quest to rethink why I believed what was so ingrained in me. This was not an overt pointing out to me on your part, but simply observing the way you approached your own life issues.
You have taught me the meaning of humility, honesty, graciousness, giving, passion and discipline. Never denying me an opportunity for counsel, you have been a caring, straightforward and extremely generous mentor. I feel safe in our talks together, and I know that you would treat me as lovingly as you would treat your own sons. It has always been so. The unique musical sensibilities that God has given you are without question. No one looks out the world’s window quite like you have.
Your wisdom has shown that passion in music comes from a mix of questioning, re-evaluation, rich experiences, triumphs and personal struggle. Never content with the status quo or considered what you have accomplished to be enough, your return to school as an already seasoned orchestrator and conductor, along with your pursuit of alternate career paths, are examples to everyone. For me, this is a master class in how to live life well. I can’t possibly quantify all the expressions of gratitude I have for you dear one. All I can say, is that you have changed the way I view life in a myriad of ways. Thank you from the bottom of my being. Cheers to you friend, who wisely jumped off the merry-go round to smell the roses, tend the garden and rest awhile, always knowing there’s another day to play.
Eternally in your debt,
“There is no friend like an old friend who has shared our morning days, no greeting like his welcome, no homage like his praise.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr