On February 27, 2013 pianist Van Cliburn died and the world mourned.
Every music teacher I had in grade (primary) school proclaimed Van Cliburn the greatest pianist ever, because of his win at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
The judges didn't know what to do being obliged to ask permission of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. The judges nodded. "Then give him the prize!"
In a statement read at Mr. Cliburn's funeral service in Ft. Worth, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "Over the course of many years, during the most difficult historical times, the art of Van Cliburn brought together people from different countries, different continents and united them. We shall always remember Van Cliburn as a true and sincere friend of the Russian people."
Former President George W. Bush said at the service, "Members of the presidents' club could have taken a lesson from him in diplomacy."
President Barack Obama said in a statement read at the service, "I am confident that the enduring beauty of his art will sustain his legendary status for years to come."
He played for royalty and world leaders, and was admired by the greatest of the great.
For two seasons I bought box seat tickets for the Sunday afternoon performances of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra at the Bass Performance Hall.
Being approached by Van Cliburn, who had a box just down from mine, during an intermission of one of the early ones, haunts me to this day.
The man had obviously noticed that I was alone.
Tall and lanky, I remember the size of his hands the most. They were enormous, with long, long fingers.
Had the ghost of Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky approached me, I wouldn't have been more shocked ... or tongue-tied when he asked how I enjoyed the performance of the Rachmaninoff C Minor concerto (the second).
The only thing I could think to say was, "Not as much as yours."
He laughed and said, "That's too kind of you. But you know, I think she brought a real ethereal quality to the work."
I agreed, and put forth observations I cannot for the life of me recall, and he said, "Yes, yes. You're right. That was so charming."
I melted. I had offered an opinion on a performance and he agreed with me.
Mr. Cliburn went out of his way to open me up and talk. Then he drew in a quick breath and said, "I'm sorry, I'm being rude. I'm Van Cliburn. And you are...?"
"Rocky Hatley," I said, and the smile on my face must have looked worshipful and simultaneously stupid. "And you certainly didn't need to introduce yourself, Mr. Cliburn."
"Your name is Rocky? Is that your given name, or a nickname?"
"It's a nickname," I said, and explained that I was named for my father, and my parents wanted a nickname. They had almost settled on "Sandy" when my pediatrician told my mother that he found me, two hours old, trying to stand on my hands and knees and said, "That young man is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar."
Mr. Cliburn nodded with a wide smile. I truly believed he was interested, "So Rocky it was. That's a wonderful story."
And all with a Texas accent.
We spoke at a couple of more concerts, and met again at the Meyerson Symphony Center for a concert of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
"Still couldn't find anyone to join you?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No. I couldn't."
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. "You will. Music unites the world."
Former President Bush remarked at his funeral that the people of the Soviet Union didn't find a stereotypical Texas cowboy way back in 1958 but a "gracious, humble young man, beloved even by the enemy."
I'll always remember the ghost of a legend who took the time to draw lowly me out of a shell, a man who cared about my thoughts and opinions of his beloved music ... and me.
When I heard of his death, I cried.
Now, I'm listening to his Rachmaninoff C Minor Concerto with the legendary Fritz Reiner conducting.