How I Got Here

Born in Tulsa Oklahoma, I grew up in a family of athletes. My father was a multi sport standout in college, and played Semi Pro baseball after. He even played competitive fast pitch softball until he was 55 years old. His sons, Gary, Les, and Don, not only took turns being bat boy for one of the 3 simultaneous teams he played for, but spent much of their recreational time in the back yard throwing the football around, having batting practice, or boxing lessons. As competitive as he was, Dad always was a giver…to his family and really anyone in need. 

At 85 years old he still is both..competitive and giving. He led by example in a quest for excellence and I must admit there was a lot of pressure on us to always do the best we could. And never leave ANYONE wondering if we had or not. There were a lot of times it would have been nice to just slack off and be a goof. And we did our share of goofing. But if it was an endeavor that was going to be measured in some way, then slacking was not an option. Fortunately he always instructed us with encouragement and praise rather than harsh critique. He also left no doubt that we should always conduct ourselves with integrity, never saying there was something we could or would do if we couldn’t or wouldn’t. If we were caught bragging, we better be able to back it up, and never tell someone you would do something unless you followed up and did it. He lived that way, and the respect for him I’ve heard others comment about is always of the highest praise. That’s my Dad. He’s a great man. 

My Mother…what a hoot ! As you could imagine, living with such a strong personality as my Dad, she had to have attributes to counter-balance him. It was her sense of humor, wit, and creative take on life that did it. From puppets she wore on her feet, propped up on the back of the couch, to putting grapes coated in olive oil in a bag for a Halloween party for us (a bag of eyes don’t you know), to her artistic talent and the joy she gets from painting…if I have any creativity I know I got it from her. She’s the type that could…and has…told a story at a relatives funeral that would have the mourners laughing to tears as she recounted the loved one’s escapades. How often I was embarrassed when she went off on a story about me as a little boy to one of my girlfriends…but even then I couldn’t help but laugh along. Apparently I was a tad ornery. But the flow of her words and the twinkle in her eye made that seem like a cute attribute. I’m sure I didn’t feel that way when I was getting in trouble for it. Time changes perspective doesn’t it ? Dad was simply no match for her. Anytime he got a bit too edgy in her opinion, that wit would take over and about all Dad could do was give in and change that edge into a grin and a twinkle in his own eye. My Mom…she is a great woman. 

My Mom and Dad will soon be married 62 years. They sure are a cute couple. We are the luckiest of sons to have them both as parents. 

Sad Update:   In August 2009, my mother, a painter, went suddenly and permanently blind.  In a period of 4 days she went from having mildly corrected vision to totally black.  2 months later she fell and broke her pelvis, followed 3 weeks later by my father having a massive stroke, followed by the onset of vascular dementia caused by the stroke..   They were in the same skilled nursing center together, and then moved to a shared room in assisted living.  My father finally succumbed to the ravages of the of the dementia and passed away in October of 2011.  But it is noteworthy to say, after all my mother lost...her eyesight, her husband of 65 years, her home, and her love of painting, my Mom is still and easy laugh, leads the exercise class when the activity director is gone, "watches" every St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and cracks staff and residents up with her wit.  Anytime I start feeling sorry for myself for what ever reason, I call upon her trials and the way see refuses to accept anything but a love of life.  She would be an inspiration to anyone.

It only makes sense that the three boys would grow up influenced by the people their parents are. My youngest brother by 4 years, Don…Super Jock ! 5 A State runnerup wrestler, All State Baseball, and All Regional Shortstop in college. Made the cut in tryouts for the St. Louis Cardinals a couple years out of college, but finally the home office decided he was to old. Too Old ? 24 ? Yeah, well it’s a young man’s game and they’re looking for teenagers. The great Ken Boyer told him he should be playing pro ball and to go try somewhere else. He never did though. Life was already underway. He’s a scratch golfer too…man, he can hit that ball 300 yards. I remember coming home for the summer from college and we started rough housing in the living room….putting on a few wrestling moves. I thought I would just show him who “da Man” was. I ended up only showing him a big knot on my head from hitting the floor. That was the last time I ever messed with him. He’s had a career as a coach and Vice Principal. He exemplifies the attributes of my Dad the most of the three of us. I know he has influenced many of his students in the same way. 

Les, my middle brother by 2 years, took a different tack. He was very athletic too. But as a kid in 6th grade walking home from school, he passed some guys practicing their little rock and roll garage band. That day he told my folks he wanted a set of drums. Dad told him if he would save enough money for half the cost, he would pay the other half. Les got a paper route soon after that and for over a year got up at 4 a.m, 7 days a week to run it. The very minute he got enough for half a set of drums he quit. Mom and Dad let him set them up permanently in the formal dining room. He really hasn’t been anything but a musician ever since. By the time he was 14 he was the drummer in a fraternity party band. Before he was 16 he was making money with music. I had the driver’s license, so it fell to me to haul him around to gigs. At the time we weren’t telling Mom and Dad that one of those gigs was at the 500 Club, a dive off the side of the road by the Turnpike gate. Rough place. The owners told him to hide in the bass drum if they got raided. He also took up guitar about that time. If Les wasn’t sleeping or eating, he was playing his guitar. To this day he is one of my favorite guitar players. Funny how that ‘quest for excellence’ influence made it’s way into the creative side. He also is a great songwriter…my Mom’s wit, you can hear it in his words. He has come up with some of the funniest songs ! I always envied him…thinking how great it must be to be able to do that. To make music ! As a result, my next younger brother is probably one of my biggest influences. I’m guessing that it’s not all that common to have an older brother use his younger one as a roll model. Well..it happens. After I started building dulcimers, I gave Les the 3rd one I ever built. It was tuned DAA, and I never showed him a thing on it. It hung on his wall for a couple of years, then he started messing around with it…still in DAA. He only knew 4 songs total when he entered the National Championships for the first time…all original compositions done in his innovative fingerpicking style. Even with a pretty severe case of the nerves he placed 3rd. The next year, 1990, he came back and won it, again playing all original compositions. I’d tell you how he does it, but I can’t explain it. You’ll just have to watch him on the YouTube videos I have posted. Remarkable musician. 

I’m the oldest brother. I guess if I had to categorize where I fit in, I’d have to say I’m a blend of my two younger brothers. A blend of the influences of both my Mom and Dad. I played little league, but my niche was wrestling. I ended up going to college on a wrestling scholarship…unfortunately I could tell you how many lights were on the ceiling of every gym in the conference. Get it ? When I…finally…graduated, I got married and went to work in sales. I had two wonderful, beautiful daughters, Sarah and Rebekah. As the years have past they have changed their roles to be my best friends. At 30 years of age, along came the dulcimer. Until then I didn’t do anything musical. I went to Silver Dollar City in Branson MO and saw my first one. After envying my brother Les for all this time, I still remember the rush of feeling “I could do that !!” I didn’t have the money to buy it though so I went to the library and got a book “How to Build a Dulcimore” by Chet Hines. His plans were substantial…read that as the thing was built like a battleship. I was too excited to follow them, so I took the key things and designed my own. I made it in one day out of 1/4? exterior plywood. It would have been better in a street fight than as a musical instrument, but it DID make music. I was hooked. As my building improved, my playing improved. There were no other dulcimer players around so I had to teach myself. I must admit, I sometimes feel more like an inventor than a musician or craftsman. Those are nice by-products of this strange drive I have to make what I do different from what’s already being done. I think I have my Dad to thank (blame ?) for that trait (neurosis ?) . In 1982 I went to Winfield and saw the competition for the first time. That inspired me to work toward that goal, and the next year I entered taking second. Year two I took second. Year three I took second. Sheesh ! The next year I didn’t even make the cut for the finals. That’s where my prime advice to anyone entering the National Championships originates : Play one you know ! Finally in 1987 I won first, playing all original compositions. Les and I are the only two brothers in any instrument category to win on the same instrument. I believe we are also the only two contestants in any instrument category to win with all original compositions. Thanks Mom ! The dulcimer has changed my life in so many ways. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever dream I’d be building and playing dulcimers for a living, or that I would ever play music with my brother. It has made me a better person, like a gentle hand smoothing off the rough edges. It has given me so many moments of fulfillment, whether it’s the stack of raw wood that now makes music, or the birth and growth of a new song, or being amazed and touched that something I might play would touch someone else. And the enrichment I have felt from meeting so many wonderful people in my musical travels is hard to imagine not having. Thank you all…Kids,  Friends, Brothers, Folks…for being a part of my life.

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