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Ray Veckruise, in tune for 100 years
It’s not every day that a man who plays the piano like Liberace turns 100 and is still able to tickle the ivories with grand old songs, to the delight of the crowd gathered for his centennial celebration.
But that day came Jan. 16 for Givens/Highland Farms resident Ray Veckruise and, at times, there was not a dry eye among the 75 or so attendees in the retirement home’s assembly hall.
When Veckruise was born in Gary, Indiana on January 16, 1918, World War I was still raging in Europe. Two months later, the great flu pandemic began scouring the globe, claiming an estimated 50-100 million lives. But, luckily for the music world, it didn’t claim Ray’s.
In the 100 years since, Veckruise’s life has revolved around his deep love of music. But the period Veckruise seems fondest of is the 22 years when he shared his love of music with hundreds upon hundreds of high school students to whom he taught chorus in Jacksonville, Florida, from the 1950s to the 1970s.
As the saying goes, “What goes around comes around.” After all these years, five of Ray’s former students showed up unannounced to surprise him at his 100th birthday to express their love for him in words and song.
Two of those former students, Robbie and Martha Trice, came all the way from Jacksonville, Florida. The pair met in Veckruise’s chorus, when she was 16 and he was 17, and they went on to marry and lead musical careers.
“Mr. Veckruise not only mentored us in music, he mentored us in life," Robbie Trice said. "He had as big an influence on us as anyone in our lives,” Trice added. “The opportunities he gave us in music gave us the confidence we needed to decide on pursuing music as a full-time career.”
An especially poignant moment in the recent celebration came when Ray played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while his former student, Martha Trice, sang.
Veckruise, whose first wife died in 1983, has been married to his present wife, Jean, for 31 years. They met when both were employed at Heritage USA in South Carolina.
As a member of the Kiwanis Club of Black Mountain-Swannanoa since 2009, Ray has frequently delighted his fellow Kiwanians by playing familiar old tunes before their weekly meetings. He took up piano tuning after retiring from choral teaching and has tuned pianos all across the Swannanoa Valley, including one owned by the late Ruth Bell Graham.
Asked to what he attributes his longevity, Ray replied, “To give you the honest answer, I don’t know.”
But then, with a twinkle in his eye, this self-professed life-long Christian added, “Maybe God doesn’t want me any more. When I get up there, they’ll be wondering what to do with me, ‘cause I’ve had to help a lot of out-of-tune singers and fix a lot of out-of-tune pianos. They don’t have any. Everything’s perfect. Well, I’m a piano tuner. What am I going to do?”
Asked if he had any advice to share for those who’ve not yet reached his lofty age, Veckruise said, “Don’t fall! Most folks are born with two hips. But I’ve broken three!”