Joe L. Wheeler has written: “Time remorselessly rambles down the corridors and streets of our lives. But it is not until autumn that most of us become aware that our tickets are stamped with a terminal destination.”

And so it has occurred to me how thoughts must have roamed a bit today as all of us made our separate journeys to reach this place in order to celebrate and honor the life of one man. Perhaps each of us found a bit of time to reflect on just how that one man and his legacy has touched and influenced our own lives – and in those moments of quiet reflection, perhaps we entertained – however briefly – thoughts of our own journeys… and final destinations.

Memory, however bittersweet, is still such a warm and inviting place – never more so than during the change of seasons. And there is something uniquely special about this particular time of year … the transformation of Summer into Autumn … that stokes the blaze of reflection as no other time of year … no other change of season … seems able to do. There is something about Summer’s particular transformation into Autumn that always tends to pull our thoughts back to a thousand yesterdays when life was fresh and love was new … when the world was young, and we along with it. Back to that turbulent and passionate kingdom of our youth. A time when Autumn seemed somehow further away … and Winter was just a word.

Some memories come to you softly on cat’s feet. Other memories come crashing back like thunderous waves on some rocky and rugged New England shore. Those are the memories that remain clearest through the passing years … for they are the memories of moments filled to the brim with soul-shattering first times.

For several hundred kindred souls, those moments … those brief Forevers … and the memories that continue to keep them so incredibly sharp and clearly defined are caught and will be forever held in the reflections of those years we spent as students at The North Carolina School of the Arts.

As many of you know, The School of the Arts opened in 1965 – the first of its kind in the Western hemisphere to teach Dance, Music, Drama and Academics under the same roof. I was fortunate enough to have been chosen to be one of those first several hundred kindred souls. As such, I was lucky enough to have known the School’s first President, Vittorio Giannini – who had, since 1962, envisioned a place that would become a sort of Juilliard of the South – and lived long enough to see that beautiful dream become a reality – until his untimely death in 1966.

The second President of that school was the man whose life we celebrate today – Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Robert Ward. He held that post until 1975, when he stepped down to serve as a member of the composition faculty for five more years. Dr. Ward led our School through its first decade, when policies and programs were still being developed. During his tenure, the School more than doubled its faculty and enrollment; established a School of Design & Production, separate from the School of Drama; and created a high school Visual Arts Program. Dr. Ward also presided over the incorporation of the School into the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s, when the 16 public colleges and universities became constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina.

These are the parts of Dr. Ward’s biographical information that are readily available to anyone. Not so readily available are the personal memories those of us who were students during those years possess and continue to cherish.

To us, Robert Ward was a gentle giant of a man. And to begin to understand just how much his gentleness was needed in our lives then, you must remember that President Kennedy had been assassinated only a little over two years before the school first opened its doors. Only one year after Dr. Ward became Chancellor, we witnessed with stunned disbelief the public murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy – horrific events that became such defining moments in our lives.

That one year became, in fact, a watershed year in our country’s history – a turning point for our nation and its people. A year of vivid colors, startling sounds, and searing images. A turbulent, relentless cascade of events that changed America forever. From assassinations and conflicts, pop culture and free love, civil rights and women’s rights, all of us were questioning traditional values and authority.

That is why Dr. Robert Ward was such a precious gift to us at that point in our lives. For you see, to say we were a rowdy bunch of hippies would be a vast understatement. But we were “artists” in training – so some degree of rebellion was naturally to be expected. And since Dr. Ward was our authority figure, in some instances, he became the target of our rebelling. We raised a lot of hell in those days that would have tried the patience of lesser men. But Robert Ward managed to do something no one else could have done – he loved the hell right out of us. In doing so, he also managed to redirect our sometimes unmanageable passion. He was able to accomplish that because he was an artist too – recognized, honored and respected by his peers – and so wonderfully passionate about his life’s calling. He knew what it was like to possess the creative gift – to own something of which you were not always the master. He spoke our language – and because of that, his words touched our hearts. And when, in the Autumn of his years, he strolled through our campus with his wife, Mary, on his arm – there was no couple in our midst more in love or content with the time. As all great teachers, he taught not by words alone, but by example – until we too found ourselves dissolved into something complete and great. He showed us what lay just beneath the Summer grass of our youth. He laid bare the root of creativity – and taught us to respect and cherish the source that would continue to nourish us throughout our own lives and careers.

Robert Ward was a peacemaker who shared with us the incommunicable past. He brought us together, channeled our fitful energy, soothed our youthful impatience and gave us a new and unified sense of direction. For that gift, those several hundred kindred and creative souls – who now find themselves in the Autumn of their own years – will remain forever grateful.

And so, Robert Ward, I am thankful that we are not remembering you today in stoic silence or somber ceremony. It is only fitting that we have come here this afternoon to reflect upon your life with loving words and wondrous music. Smiles of gentle remembrance brighten our faces and warm our hearts. It is an honor to celebrate your life and your legacy. We gather joyfully in the knowledge that we may now, in some small way, be part of bestowing upon you the gift of immortality. It is, after all, our gift to give – you see – because there is no death in remembrance. And you will be remembered. In ages yet to be, when the rest of us are sleeping, other human souls will be moved and transformed by your gift of music – and in every wave of human thought and emotion that your mighty talent will evoke – you will continue to live on. That is the blessing you’ve earned – to live on in your music. How fortunate for this sometimes weary world of ours … a world that still seems too much in love with war … that the wondrous music that was your heart and soul will bless the lives of others yet to be born. And if music is indeed the food of love, you and your dear Mary will walk hand-in-hand for all eternity in the light of those precious melodies your love for her inspired.

As for us, what we have once enjoyed, we will never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us – and will remain a constant beacon of light in the approaching darkness. And, as I draw my own chair closer to the cheerful blaze of memory when day is finally done, I will hear once more, in those precious moments of quiet solitude and gentle reflection, the haunting lyrics of a once forgotten melody that still defines our years together –

“Oh all the times I listened, and all the times I heard
All the melodies I was missing, and all the magic words,
And all those potent voices, and the choices we had then,
How I’d love to find we had that kind of choice again.

“Remember when the music
Was a glow on the horizon of every newborn day
And as we sang, the sun came up to chase the dark away,
And life was good, for we knew we could.

“Don’t you remember when the music
Brought the night across the valley as the day went down.
And as we’d hum the melody, we’d be safe inside the sound,
And so we’d sleep, we had dreams to keep.

“So I will still remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire.
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we’d sing … and so we’d sing.”

– “Remember When the Music” by Harry Chapin

Ira David Wood
© 2013 – Reprinted with the author’s kind permission.