Friday, August 7, 2009

Remembering My Favorite Teacher

I found out earlier this week that a former teacher of mine passed away last month. Here is his obituary as it appeared in the August 6 edition of the Daily Gate City of Keokuk IA. I will share my thoughts and memories afterward.

Robert Ross Cates

BELLEVILLE, IL---Robert Ross Cates, 71, died Friday, July 17, 2009, in Memorial Hospital, Belleville, Il. He was born in Glendale, Ky., the only son of Sallie Cates and Robert W. Cates. He is survived by his mother, Sallie Cates, his wife, Rosalie Cates, and their son, Jon Cates.

He taught instrumental music for 26 years, directed high school bands and played professionally in a number of jazz and dance bands. He began playing music professionally as a teenager and at an early point in his career he opened for Ray Charles. He played in bands such as The Richard Tucker Orchestra, The Skyliners and The Noblemen, and with musicians such as Clark Terry. He taught instrumental music in Warsaw, Carthage, Brown County and East St. Louis in Illinois, and in Cave City, Ky. His longest tenure was in Warsaw where he recently celebrated his career and his colleague Lynn Johnson's retirement from Warsaw High School.

His students went on to teach, direct and play music professionally in bands such as Stan Kenton's orchestra.

His family continues to be grateful to everyone at Memorial Hospital in Belleville who provided him with life-saving health care for the last five years.

A memorial celebrating his life will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Bethelehem United Church of Christ, Sutter, Il.

Donations can be made to The Musicians Monument in Rand Park, Keokuk. Contact Nancy Ballenger at 319-670-9203.

I am, of course, saddened to learn of the passing of Mr. Cates. I first met him in 1976, after starting sixth grade at Warsaw Middle School. He was, in point of fact, my first music teacher. I wanted to learn to play an instrument. My mother wanted me to take up the trumpet. I was, however, more interested in the saxophone....mainly because of my mother playing record albums of the tenor sax player Boots Randolph. Mr. Cates agreed, and suggested the alto sax. I came to find out later, that Mr. Cates himself was a sax player. He never bragged or talked much about his experience professionally. He sought to bring out the best in each of his students, no matter what instrument they played.
In physical appearance, Mr. Cates could be described, charitably, as 'rumpled.' He was short, balding and not overly handsome. Yet when he smiled, as he did when something went well, or a student learned something new, there was no better affirmation. He could sometimes display a short fuse, but only when he knew we were not giving our best. Afterwards, he felt worse about it than we did.
His bands were always among the top in the area. During my two years in his HS band at Warsaw, his reputation was such that our band was invited to many, many events. We could choose only five events each year to participate in. One year our band was invited to an event in Baltimore, Maryland. Too bad we couldn't go to that one.
I can honestly say that during my six years living in Warsaw from 1975-81, the single most positive male influence in my life was Robert Cates. He didn't just teach music; he taught us life lessons too. At a time when my own father was distant, Mr. Cates was seemingly there when and if I needed him. He would not have been comfortable with this adulation, I'm sure. It is true, nonetheless. Bob Cates cared for his students. I was reminded of this one last time the day of my mother's funeral. As those in attendance filed past Mom's casket at the end, through my grief and tears I looked up......and there was Bob Cates. He quickly filed past, and gave me a nod of the head. I had not even seen him come in.......yet there he was. That spoke volumes to me.
I saw him for the last time, as it turned out, in the summer of 1983. After I had graduated from Triopia High School, I visited Warsaw and dropped in on a rehearsal of the summer band Mr. Cates was working with. It was great to see him again. I hope that I told him how much he meant to me. I don't remember if I did.
Recently, Mr. Cates was in attendance at the retirement party for Miss Lynn Johnson, vocal music teacher at Warsaw for 33 years. Selfishly, I wish I could have been there. (I have had opportunity to tell Miss Johnson how much she taught me, as well. If not for her, I probably would not be doing any singing today.) Anyway, if I had been there, and could have addressed those in attendance, perhaps I would have said something like this:
I am proud to be part of the legacy of Bob Cates and Lynn Johnson. They have had a profound influence on who I am, and what I do.
Bob Cates is more than a teacher, an instructor. He is a friend, to all who have the privilege to know him. His professionalism and character shone through in all he did. He wanted the very best out of us, musically.....but more importantly, he wanted his students to be their very best no matter where they went or what they did. We knew that he cared about us, not just as students or band members, but as people. He loved us........and we loved him. He was always our teacher first; but when we needed a friend, he delivered....time and again. He is one of the finest men I have ever known....and it is my honor to have been one of his students.
Here's to you, Mr. Cates. Your place in the hearts and minds of your students, is secure. As the song by Dan Fogelberg states, "I am a living legacy to the Leader of the Band."
Rest in peace.

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