It is the kind of email you never want to receive: a long-time friend was injured in a serious car accident on Monday. Wednesday he was taken off life support. Funeral on Friday.
So Candice and I left early this morning to drive the three hours to our old Shenandoah Valley home of Staunton to remember Don, mourn his death which came too early, and celebrate his life with his wife Ruth, son Philip, and many other friends.
The service began in the beautiful Temple House of Israel, designed in 1925 by Staunton architect Sam Collins in the Moorish Revival Style. The haunting Jewish melodies sung by a trio of women rolled around the wood, plaster, and tile interior.
Rabbi Joe Blair nailed Don in the eulogy. There was much laughter and more than a few tears.
Don was one-of-a-kind. He loved telling jokes while sitting around a table filled with wine, food he had cooked, family, and friends. I had my first pomegranate one evening after Don sliced the fruit and passed it around for all to enjoy. I can still taste the wonderful garlic from Don and Ruth’s table.
Don loved classical music, so I was surprised one evening when I walked in his house and heard the David Grisman and Andy Statman Songs of our Fathers CD coming through the speakers. We began talking about the Jewish melodies and mandolins and one thing led to another. All of a sudden Don announced that he had gone to high school with Dr. Banjo! “You’re kidding,” I replied, “You went to school with Pete Wernick?” Yep, said Don, matter-of-factly. Then he proceeded to talk some bluegrass for a while. As the rabbi said today, Don had an amazing ability to remember a sometimes annoying amount of information – even for music that would have been obscure for most Jewish kids from Brooklyn.
Don loved his family and teaching. The rabbi told stories today to illustrate both. When Ruth was losing her hair in a successful battle with cancer, Don told her not to worry because he had married her, not her hair. When asked how long he had been married, Don would invariably reply, “Not long enough!” Don also loved his physics students at JMU, “except for those pre-med students who were only taking physics because they had to.” In those cases, Don would say “I saved a lot of lives by failing them.”
Don died much too young, but by being an organ donor he gave the gift of life on Wednesday to another patient at the University of Virginia medical center. That’s not the only way his life continues, but it was a comforting thought today.
Rest in peace Don. You lived a good life and have a whole community you touched in ways you could have never realized.
More to come…