A Tribute: To A Mentor

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.

9 thoughts on “A Tribute: To A Mentor

  1. Oh, Sara. This brought the lump in throat, tear to eye. Your beautiful writing was seasoned by your experiences in that tight community of musicians and singers under the tutelage of this incredible man. I too have some of his Christmas CD compilations and I treasure them.
    Thank you 🙏🏻 ☺️ for your sweet eloquent tribute to Dr. Dan Ross.

  2. Sara, what a beautiful tribute to a wonderful soul! I went to ASU 1966-70, early on in his career. I was a voice major who played clarinet. The semester we had to take clarinet, I took oboe, flute, and bassoon from Dr. Ross, Danny to me. (His wife was in my husband’s high school class). I was pregnant that year, the first pregnant music major at A-State. 😂 I had Dr. Ross right after lunch and he told me if I ever needed to stay home and nap, feel free to miss his class. I took him up on it twice. I have always remembered his thoughtfulness and caring. Around music in vitro, she became a piano major at A-State and outstanding accompanist. This was before his boys were born. We have lost a wonderful soul that I am so glad I was honored to know!

  3. Beautiful words, Sara. Thank you~you have ministered to my aching heart. Each of us have multiple Dan Ross stories. Mine are best as I recall. Not enough room to write them all ~ forgive the length. We have all been in the presence of a mostly (🤣🥳😳) “quiet” & marvelous man, brilliant in music & more for decades. What a run! I met Danny when spending the weekend at his future bride’s home, Ann’s as they 1st began dating in late 60’s. My BFF was to be his sister-in-law, Jane. I was swept up by a generous kindness which exuded Dan Ross’s every pore in his skinny smiling body. Danny offered & became Jane & my right hand music mixer for special powerhouse Academy Award Soundtrack music he would piece together for us as needed in our Jonesboro High School twirling days. Jane & I were majorettes there as well as ASU. His excellence in music came from all directions & understanding of really beautiful music & how to make it. Finding the music which “moved us” to compete at majorette competitions across The South was not always in the same key or genre. Danny taught us in adjusting the speed of the recording, he could create a masterpiece out of mish-mash as he called it which would work in the key changes the speed gave the music. Jane or I would listen to his masterpiece & become lost in such beautiful sounds all connected in correct ways & says it’s REALLY good! “ Good enough ISN’T” 😳 We’d be thrilled & he’d say~ it’s not quite right, lemme work with it a bit more. We couldn’t hear what needed further attention, yet he was always correct & final result was beyond any of our expectations. How Danny knew his mixed recording piece wasn’t quite what we had in mind was beyond uncanny~a real sixth sense as we didn’t even know it ourselves. With his finished result would always come, “what do you really think about the piece & how does this music speak to you”? If we couldn’t describe our feelings, it was back to the tape recorder again. Again he was correct, “Always remember to play beautifully” speaks when translated into the hearts & souls of his audience. Long ago I heard his “Good enough ISN’T!” & “My head often gets in the way of my heart” & “If all you care about is technique, you might as well put on a red dress and go stand on a street corner”. There were tons more less eloquent than these but more hysterical truisms have probably never been penned. Due to a very impressionable young Danny being deeply affected by a tragic death near him…he chose never to charge during his lifetime for any lessons of any kind: A True Compassionate Fella. I spent a whole afternoon with Danny & Ouida Hardin several months ago at ASU Band Room going through old boxes of photographs of Don Minx Era Band Department at ASU. DANNY, Mr Minx, Ouida & I had a special bond from our times together 67ish-72 & further. We talked cranberry chicken salad at Chicken Salad Chicks about what we did with our ASU degrees. Then we spoke of parents. My turn, I shared my Mother’s secretarial business degree & fact Daddy enlisted in WWII in grade 11 never receiving a diploma. Decades later, ASU President Dr Eugene Smith & others urged Daddy to come teach business classes from personal experience perspective ~ the man was brilliant. Daddy refused saying he didn’t have a degree, just a license to do the grocery & banking business forwards & backwards as only he knew how. Danny shared then he too only had a license & no degree as Dan Ross was a licensed Methodist minister yet had never been ordained. 😳👊🏼 Oh the Power of God in Heart Soul & Mind🔥 Danny asked what was one of my Dad’s favorite pieces of music~ “It’s a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong “~ Daddy said the words say it all, summed up his life & wanted it played at a Life Celebration when the time came; yet knew he’d be overruled. Danny exploded “That’s one of my favorites, too & have a feeling I’d be met with the same not gonna happen!” Danny really surprised me by his next “oh & by the way did you know your dad helped me out when I needed it most long ago? I always liked the way your dad looked after people”. I didn’t know this story although there aware thousands of generosity stories about my dad & mother~said I knew Daddy & Mother believed if you saw a need, quietly provide it without letting anyone know. Your reward is in Heaven when you don’t allow your left hand to know what your right hand is doing for good in someone who is needing it. Danny nodded & quoted Matthew 6: 3-4 which Danny said my dad had shared with Danny so long ago as a piece of advice for how to live a full life. 😳🥰 ♥️ Sometimes the best is saved for last. Imagine my shock & surprise when listening to Danny’s Last Christmas CD & Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” began to play & croon. Of all his Christmas CD’s he’d sent me, I’d never heard this song on any of Danny’s. Driving in the dark, I had to pull over on the interstate & weep for the love of this special man, his grieving family & for my dad. I will miss Danny’s generous spirit, hysterical jokes and magical twinkling eyes that danced in the presence of his family. It always felt so good to be around Danny as he unknowingly uplifted your moments & provided whatever you needed! God Rest your soul as we offer prayers of comfort for your family & precious grandchildren you held so dear. It’s been a good run ~ it’s time to rest in Heaven, Danny~ rest in theory at least. Yep~ It was a wonderful life.

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