In 1997, Tuesdays With Morrie was published. The book, based on author Mitch Albom’s relationship with his terminally ill mentor, became a best-seller. Albom reflects on his reconnection and interactions with his sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who would impart his wisdom and lessons about life to his former student before eventually succumbing to ALS.
In 2007, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor named Randy Pausch was invited to present a lecture on his home campus entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The presentation, which was very simple, straightforward, and moving, was posted to YouTube and has been seen millions of times around the world. The original title of the venue
for which he had been invited to speak was “The Last Lecture,” which took on particular significance in his case; he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had been given mere months to live. The speech was adapted into a book that he co-authored as he valiantly fought his illness. He passed away in 2008.
Both of the men who became well-known for their wisdom and kindness had tremendous talents in different disciplines. Their commonality, though, was that of their chosen professions—they were teachers.
As I drove to work on the morning of November 13, 2019 and watched the sun slip above the Arkansas horizon on an unusually bitterly cold autumn morning, the somber thaw of the chill came when the searing tears cascaded down my cheeks as I heard the news about a teacher and mentor that so many could claim as their own.
Dr. Dan Ross, retired Professor of Music at Arkansas State University, had died after fighting repeated bouts with cancer.
We’d lost our Morrie Schwartz; our Randy Pausch.
Their illnesses, though, were not what defined them. Rather, it was how they lived their lives and inspired others to live theirs. The illnesses, in one of the glaring injustices of life, gave extraordinary weight to the words and actions they shared after the world knew of their conditions. It was the cruel impetus.
Dr. Ross was Dr. Ross long before the cancer came along—oboe master and teacher extraordinaire, with the wit and wisdom of a blunt and colorful standup comedian and inspirational leader all in one.
Musicians are a very close group of individuals. The kinship among us is unique in the familial bonds. While we compete against others and ourselves to work towards the elusive goal of perfection, we are also truly not in competition with anyone. We are generally appreciative and
in awe of the talents that great musicians possess. How can one measure artistry in ways that a foot race or a soccer match can be decided?
According to Dr. Ross, technique certainly wasn’t the measuring stick of a musician’s talents.
“No one will compliment you on your technique,” he would tell me. As a trumpet player—those of us he lovingly referred to by using a cheeky, PG-13 term—he focused on hearing me and my voice through the instrument. Receiving any kind of compliment for playing beautifully was the highest honor. Indeed, one of his most well-known “Ross-isms” was, “When in doubt, play beautifully.”
He told stories about picking out his “date” for the nights when he performed. He would scan the audience as they filed into the performance hall, looking for someone who he knew would need to hear his musical voice for the night. In one particular instance, his orchestral neighbor—who knew his pre-concert ritual—listened as he leaned over and told her, “I’ve found my date for the night.” She asked him to point her out, and he had chosen an elderly woman to play for during the evening’s performance. After the concert ended, he and some colleagues went to dinner when this woman—a complete stranger—entered the restaurant, walked over to
his table, and spoke to him.
She told him how much she enjoyed the concert, and then paid him the utmost compliment:
“I felt like you were playing just for me.”
Such was the magic of his musicianship and personality. His students were always told to play for the “little blue-haired lady” in every audience.
I am a music educator, but I was never part of the Dan Ross oboe studio. However, I was adopted into his extensive musical family, spending numerous Wednesdays enjoying his company for “Wingsday” and frozen yogurt with his students, receiving a Christmas mix CD every year filled with tracks of beautiful music, and helping myself to packages of peanut butter cookies from his stash when I waded through the cane shavings and eclectic decor of his office upon dropping by for a visit. If I needed advice, I didn’t have to ask, because he was offering it freely to a kid who happened to study music at Arkansas State University during just a few years of the nearly five decades he taught there.
I have to believe that the most unique aspect of my own stories about Dr. Ross is that they are not unique. Virtually every person who met him could share a similar story about his special ability to make you feel like the most important person he knew.
In 2017, he gave a video interview for ASU as a featured faculty researcher. He was explaining a bit about the gouging machines he had developed for double reed players. While it was a brief interview, he closed with remarks and reflections about his teaching career and his bouts with cancer.
“I don’t want to retire. I mean, when I go do classes—and this may sound stupid to you—but I explain to the students, ‘Do whatever you’ll enjoy.’ I said…in 2000, 2001, I had colon cancer, I had surgery, I had eight months of chemo, and at the end of all that, the first day of class, the fall of 2001, chemo doctor called me in, the first words out of his mouth, ‘You’re not gonna make it.’ Year and a half, two years at the absolute best. And my first thought was, ‘Boy, it’s been a quick trip.’ But my next thought was, ‘That’s okay. I’m still the luckiest person in the world ‘cause I got to do in life exactly what I loved the most. Not many people can say that. I love what I do.”
I say we were the lucky ones. Lucky to have crossed paths with such a remarkably gifted human being that we could call our mentor, our friend, and our teacher.
Rest easy, Dr. Ross.