I’ve been wanting to write this post for nearly 17 months now, but, honestly, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. How does one summarize the impact of a man like Dr. Ray Robinson?
Doc (as we all called him) was the choir conductor during my undergraduate years at Palm Beach Atlantic University, then Palm Beach Atlantic College (PBA). I studied under his tutelage from 1995-1999. But for many of us who knew Doc, he was so much more than just a teacher. What I learned from him was more than a deep love of music, it was more than the ability to be a world-class scholar or an expert musician. No one ever doubted Doc’s ability, his skill, or his leadership. Like most college professors he had written numerous articles, and, like most world-renowned musicians, he was in a league of his own. Yes, he had been the president of Westminster Choir College for nearly 20 years – the second-longest serving president in the college’s history. Yes, the book he authored on choral conducting has been a standard textbook for conductors in training for decades. Yes, he was arguably the leading world scholar on the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. And, yes, the list of professional accomplishments goes on and on.
But to only talk about these accomplishments is to do Doc a terrible disservice.
This weekend I’m attending an event in West Palm Beach to honor Doc and his contributions to my alma mater; alumni of the music program have been invited back to PBA to perform in the Oratorio Choir’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Last night was our first rehearsal with the group, and after the rehearsal many of us gathered for a social time to reconnect, speak with Doc’s family, and share some of our memories of him. As I sat there and listed to others talk I was both reminded of Doc’s impact, and struck by the unique place he held in each of our lives. Here were people who had come together literally from all over the world (I believe there were at least three countries and multiple states represented among those in attendance at the social), and it seemed that almost every person spoke of Doc as someone who made them feel extremely unique and special – like they had one-of-a-kind relationship with him – and that they would not be who or where they are today if it had not been for him.
I would say this was a characteristic that was true for many of us in attendance (and even many that were not there whom I still stay in contact with today). Doc had this ability to make you feel special – no, that’s not the right way to say it… Doc had this way of communicating to you his belief that you actually were special, that you were important, and at the same time you never once felt like you were so special the world revolved around you. By the time I knew Doc, he used wisdom to somehow give you a confidence in yourself and your abilities that was not arrogance but was ultimately founded on a deep understanding of your role and place in the world as a deeply loved child of God. Artists are often (accurately) accused of believing themselves to be almost god-like, or at the very least “God’s-gift-to” then fill in the blank; one of the things Doc taught me was that it was in God, specifically in Jesus – not in my art – that I found my my value and my identity.
For whatever reason Doc latched on to me – or maybe I should say he latched me on to him. Now to be completely honest I know that my parents had met with him prior to my moving to Florida from Illinois and made him provide a personal assurance he would look out for me and watch over me in my time at Florida; they didn’t know him before I moved away from him, so there was no connection they were trying to take advantage of. But for whatever reason, he agreed – and I will never know why Doc did so. What was it about some 18 year old, arrogant boy who grew up outside Chicago that caused Doc to look at me and say, “I want to lead that one. I want to invest in him.”? It had to be more than a conversation with my parents and it certainly had to be more than my musical or dramatic talent.
I have to believe it had more to do with Doc than it did with me.
During the school years Doc would have me come meet with him every week. It started informally – he would ask me about my program of studies, we would discuss options for classes, we discussed people and friends. Even though Doc wasn’t my advisor, he wanted to know how my classes were going, which classes I was taking and with whom. But over time our conversations shifted. We started having deeply theological discussions – we talked about books we had read (or were reading) by people like JI Packer, CS Lewis, or Francis Schaeffer, or we would talk about what we were learning and studying in our private prayer and Bible study times. Doc used to call it our “devotions” – I’m not sure where the term came from, but I never argued with him about it; after-all, who was I to argue with him?
Then he would invite me to his home. Being a college student from Chicago but studying in Florida I only went home once or twice a year. So for 3 or 4 years I spent Thanksgiving with him at his house. I not only got to meet his wife Ruth, but also some of his children and grandchildren – and those I didn’t meet I heard about – often – and I almost felt like I knew them as well!
Doc and Ruth became like another set of parents to me; they accepted me not just into their home, but into their family. Every summer Doc and Ruth would travel to Poland for him to continue his studies on and with Penderecki, so it was well-known among the music students that he would have students house-sit for him for the months of May through August while they were away. Those students were responsible to take care of the home while they lived in Europe, and, for several years, I was fortunate enough to have that responsibility.
But what many people did not understand is that when you took care of the house you didn’t just live there on your own – you lived there with Doc and Ruth. They typically would spend part of the summer going to visit their children in Colorado and South Carolina, then they’d spend part of the summer in Poland, and then they’d often spend time visiting friends and family in other locations (South Carolina and Princeton, NJ were two regulars when I was with them). And in between those visits they would come home – home to West Palm Beach. But when they came home they didn’t kick you out of their house until the next trip, you stayed with them and lived with them. So even though I would “house-sit” for them for four months, there were at least 3 or 4 weeks of that time every summer where I lived with them.
There were even multiple spring breaks where I remained in Florida (after-all, who lives in Florida and goes to Chicago for a week in February or March) and, because the dorms were closed, I lived with them. Doc was more than a teacher, more than a mentor – he and Ruth invited me into their family and so became family.
How does one share what was learned sitting around the dinner table having conversations about politics, theology, or history? How does one communicate the impact of evenings on the back patio talking with a mature couple what they have learned about marriage or parenting or life in general? How can you share the impact of two people opening up not just their home but their lives to you? That was my experience with Doc, and that was the impact I was reminded of last night listening to others talk.
I remember he and Ruth showing me which plants in the back garden needed watering while they were away – and which ones were the most precious plants and needed the most attention. And then I remember standing out there every morning for 30 minutes a day tending the garden. I remember painting the wall along the sidewalk in front of their house with Doc during spring break – we actually talked about the famous conductor Robert Shaw out there. Or the times we spent together tending to the bushes in the front yard; there was a large bougainvillea vine (or tree or bush) that Doc and I would work on – resulting in both of us looking beat up as we would be covered in blood from cutting and carrying the branches filled with large thorns. I remember painting the car port for them multiple times (one of many “projects” left behind to take care of while they were away).
I also will never forget the grace, wisdom, and even mercy they showed me in our interactions. I know I wasn’t your stereotypical party student (okay, so I wasn’t anything close to the stereotypical party student!), but I was a kid. Their was a security system on the home, and whichever one of us was the last person to go to bed at night was responsible to set it – so, as was normally the case, one night I went to bed late and set the system before going upstairs. But it was a particularly beautiful night that evening and I decided after getting upstairs I wanted to go out on the second-floor balcony off his desk, so I opened the door to the patio to do so – forgetting the alarm was on. Oops! They came out of their bedroom around 1:00am as the burglar alarm was blaring only to find me in the hallway (because I had run back inside) and I had to apologize for waking them up.
Then there was the year I had the fish tank in the formal living room; I didn’t realize it has leaking, but when I moved out at the end of the summer there was a large mildew spot on (actually in) the hardwood floor. Ruth mentioned it to me, but didn’t say anything else. I remember paying to have the hardwood floors sanded and refinished throughout the entire house as a result of that mistake – though I know whatever it was that I paid (even though it was a considerable amount of money, especially for a college student in the late 90’s) was probably only a small portion of what was most likely the final bill. But they never talked about it again with me – even though I lived in the house other summers after that and then rented the house for a full year after Melissa and I married and Doc took a full 12 month sabbatical to Europe.
When things like that happened I knew I had disappointed both of them, and I also knew that even in their disappointment they still trusted me, they still respected me, and they showed me incredible grace and love.
We spent countless evenings sitting in the back room together. We’d watch 60 Minutes or some other news program – Doc in his big chair and Ruth on the couch reading a book with me sitting there between them. Many nights around 10:00 Doc would get up to get a “snack” – either a bowl of cereal (I think it may have been bran flakes, if memory serves), or.a bowl of butter pecan ice cream – and, many times, after finishing that snack he’d get up and come back with a second bowl of whatever his choice for the evening was. And we’d laugh and joke about it.
When my younger sister was first diagnosed with cancer, Doc and Ruth were the first to know. I don’t remember if I got the call when I was at their home or if I talked with my parents just before I went to there, but it was Thanksgiving of 1997. Doc and Ruth were people who loved me, who listened to me, who ministered to me, and who prayed with me over the years of Erin’s battle with cancer and after her death in 1999. How does one communicate the impact that that has on an individual? They showed me true empathy – it was as if they hurt because I heart; or, more accurately, they hurt with me.
What I learned then – though I may not have been able to say until recently – is that it wasn’t just Doc I admired and learned from, it was Ruth as much as anyone. She was the quiet, firm, consistent strength behind and under him that empower and allowed him to do what he did so well. And, equally, it was his care, love, concern for, and service to her that allowed her to be the woman she was. Their relationship was marked by a mutual love and respect for each other, a deep and abiding friendship that had withstood the test of time. While I don’t know of the struggles they faced over the years, looking back I can see that their relationship was one marked by years of shared victories and probably even shared defeats, but they had come out on the other side of all those trials (whatever they were) stronger, more united, and more deeply in love with each other. While they never shared or talked about those trails, my life experience has taught me it would be impossible for any couple go through life together without having life scars that were unseen but who made them into the people and couple they were.
Unfortunately, I was never able to communicate any of this to Doc before he died. After I moved away from Florida I lost contact with them (meaning I stopped communicating with them) and it wasn’t until I learned of his passing that I had an opportunity to think back more clearly on the impact he had on my life, and I regret I was never able to share this with him and thank him for it.
Yet, today, I realize that it wasn’t just him – it was also Ruth. She accepted and loved me like a son, and together they, in many ways, raised me during my college years as much as anyone did. And for that I am both thankful and incredibly blessed. It would be easy to say that Doc made me a better musician and teacher; he absolutely did – he allowed me to be one of his student conductors for a year and provided me some musical opportunities I would have never even dreamed of before moving to Florida. But that would only be the smallest part of what I learned from him.
Doc and Ruth taught me how to lead, how to be responsible, how to serve, how to love, how to be faithful to other people and to Jesus in even the darkest of times. They taught me what it was to accept someone unconditionally, to mentor him, and to invest in him.
Now, don’t get me wrong – my parents were (and still are) wonderful parents and I learned all those things from them as well; I think what I’m trying to say here is that while my parents taught and introduced these concepts and beliefs to me throughout my childhood and teen years, it was Doc and Ruth who guided my development as a young adult because they were the ones right there with me. They took what my parents had planted that had started to grow and worked to make sure I bore fruit; just as I tended the garden while Doc and Ruth traveled, so they tended the garden my parents had planted – they watered, they weeded, and they even planted new seeds. I would not be the person I am today without their influence and investment. And I don’t just mean not the teacher and leader I am, but – and more importantly – I would not be the husband, the father, the friend, or the follower of Jesus I am today without them. Their legacy in my life made an impact far beyond the 4 1/2 years I spent in school at PBA.
So, to both Doc and Ruth, thank you. Thank you for your willingness to accept, love, trust, and invest in an 18 year old kid from Chicago. You have made a difference in my life and, as evidenced from what I saw even last night, into the lives of countless others over the years. And that’s just the direct impact you had, but as I think through all the people I have impacted as a result of your ministry to me (and the people whom others have impacted as a result of your ministry to them), I realize your influence has been exponential. You both have given me much to strive for, much to aspire to. Perhaps one day someone will say of me and my life what I am saying of you and yours.
I do miss Doc, but I look forward to seeing him again in Heaven where we will both be part of the heavenly choir. If you happen to be in the West Palm Beach area on April 4 I would invite you to attend the concert to honor him and Ruth and their legacy. Information can be found here.