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I woke today trying to fathom a Nyack without George Bryant.  George Bernard Bryant, Jr. passed away at home last evening at the age of 77. George was one of those parts of life that you consider a “constant”, he was so faithfully, quietly, graciously THERE for so long, it seemed to many that he always WOULD be there.  This musician extraordinaire touched so many lives all over our area both as musician and passionate advocate for peace, mutual understanding, fellowship and ecumenism.

For those who don’t know, “Mr. Bryant” as he was frequently known, was the Organist, Liturgical Music Director, and Choir Director of Saint Ann’s in Nyack from 1966 to his retirement in 2014, as well as Organist for Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack from 1978 to 2014.  His reputation as both instrumentalist and instructor was not only national, but international, and yet this quiet self-effacing man chose to never leave his beloved Nyack for more than a few weeks at a time despite numerous offers over the course of his long musical career.

He was born June 17th, 1939 to Margaret Beirne Bryant and George Bernard Bryant, Sr and grew up on First Avenue around the corner from St. Ann’s.  George was a musical prodigy and despite his shyness, his talent was apparent at Nyack High School and the church, and his facility with keyboards, both piano and pipe organ, brought him to study at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.  In 1962, at the age of ONLY 22 (just barely, his birthday was only weeks away) George Bernard Bryant, Jr. received his Masters of Science degree from Julliard. Please note, a Master’s Degree at 22, and also note, not a Masters of Arts, but of SCIENCE a more difficult degree in Music.  He was truly both a passionate artist AND a brilliant technician.  He would go on to play recitals here and abroad but his heart and soul and life were in his little village “up the river” from Julliard.  George became musical director at St. Ann’s church a few years later, and despite many offers, including invitations to become organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, George stayed put in the house he grew up in on First Avenue, only venturing out of Nyack for the occasional master class, recital performance, international choir tour, or music festival and convention. It seemed he was quite content, first living with his parents, then inheriting the house and living with his dog for many years – though I never could tell if the poor thing was a really big beagle or a less woebegone basset hound…

Along with the two choirs, Catholic and Jewish, George had many private students and many of them would go on to great success in the competitive music world.  He was Vice President of the New York State Association of Music Teachers from 1986 to 2014, on the Board of Directors of the Rockland County Music Teachers from 1962 to his passing, a member of the National Pastoral Musicians, and several time recipient of Rockland Executive Arts Award from the County of Rockland, and in 1997 the George Bryant Organ Scholarship was established in his honor.  He helped found and guide the Rockland County Catholic Choir, and worked with many other Rockland Music groups and schools.

George was passionate about helping youth discover the magic of music – and not just classical or sacred music – but music of all kinds, all periods, all ethnicities.  When I joined the St. Ann’s Youth Choir at the age of 16 in 1979, it would be to join a group that sang not only old church dirges, but vibrant jazz, rock, broadway, creole, american spirituals, gospel and more. It was a multiethnic group, and of the teenagers that were members when I joined, George’s “kids” would go on – as I did – to a number of prestigious music schools and programs and follow with professional musical careers.  Alumni of that group inspired by “Mr. Bryant” would record hit albums (imagine a trance-dance track with a house beat and an operatic soprano soaring over the top… yeah, the album “Aria” for any former club kids featured a lead singer who was in St. Ann’s Youth Choir), others, careers in Musical Theater or Cabaret or Jazz, along with Classical Singers and Instrumentalists, and even a Jazz Vocalist who sang at the White House. Others would become Music Teachers themselves, as well as several who are also now Musical Directors at both St. Ann’s and other churches, Musical Therapists and even the head of People to People here in Rockland.

And somehow, we would all always come BACK to this man… for guidance, for practice, for a task master when needed, and a sympathetic ear if that was required. And we’d all do anything for him.  He wasn’t just a superb musician… he was also a superb human being.

Justice, Fellowship, Peace, Understanding, Civil Rights – these all meant so much to George Bryant. He was instrumental in many music programs – whether here in Nyack, or Rockland as a whole, or even in New York City – music programs that fostered interaction and understanding between different religions, different denominations, different races or different ethnicities all in a search for commonalities while celebrating each groups unique gifts and culture. He was extremely involved with the B’Nai B’rith’s “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts back in the ’80s and the ’90s, where groups from different churches, synagogues and mosques as well as cultural groups, got together and entertained each other in rousing concerts of wildly different musical styles all celebrating our common humanity and always culminating with several pieces where all the groups performed as one whole.  Any fight for Human Dignity and Human Rights attracted his attention, and George’s most fervent, if innocent-sounding, wish was that we would all somehow learn not only to get along, but to appreciate and rejoice in our minor differences.

Heck, I learned a good amount of Hebrew during the many occasions where St. Ann’s Choir and Temple Beth Torah’s choir would come together for mixed performance and worship services!  To George Bryant, the “music” only got better as the “orchestra of life” added more and more instruments of all kinds, and voices of all kinds.

George was such an understated and constant part of our community that I think in some ways – completely without malice – his absolute genius got overlooked.  There were many times when I was cantor on the altar at St. Ann’s (especially once I actually became a seasoned performer myself) when George would be playing something and I would look out at the congregation wondering “since they hear him all the time, do they realize just HOW good he is? And how NOT normal a musician of this quality is in a suburban Catholic Church?”  The man could play a Fantasy on any given church hymn at the drop of a hat (a Fantasy is taking the basic melody and enhancing and embellishing it, especially with extremely fast and precise keyboard fingering).  He could look at a piece of sheet music he’d never seen before from any given Broadway Show and play every note on the page his first time through flawlessly and I’d even watched in awe when during one of the aforementioned “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts, a Baptist Choir scheduled to close the show was late and was still robing when all the other performers had finished, so George Bryant, without sheet music, from memory only, proceeded to play several Chopin Nocturnes for the audience… and play them with delicacy, gentleness and sensitivity that could only be described as astonishing.

George Bernard Bryant - Facebook Photo

George Bernard Bryant – Facebook Photo

For many of us, Nyack’s George Bernard Bryant, Jr. was teacher, mentor, coach, therapist, motivator, occasional drill sergeant, and very much FRIEND.

He will be missed.

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10 Years Ago Today: 9/11/2001 Nyack’s 9-11 Hero

I’ve been planning a post about a certain young man for almost a year – half out of the concern that perhaps he’d be forgotten in the crush of politicization of the event; conflict over the museum and memorial; bickering between New York and New Jersey over who should be “invited”; the inevitable conspiracy theories and an undercurrent of still simmering anger and unresolved grief. I was wrong.  Mercifully  he has NOT been forgotten in the chaos of this anniversary. People have remembered to celebrate and tell the story of this remarkable young man.  The mysterious and miraculous “Man in the Red Bandana”, a Nyacker who on 9/11/2001 lived – and died – according to what he believed and what he had been taught by his family, his church and his schools growing up among us. Welles Remy Crowther, NHS Class of 1995. He did us all proud.

The Honor Student from Nyack High and volunteer member of the Empire Hook and Ladder Co. in Upper Nyack graduated from Boston College in 1999. He was working at Sandler O’Neill & Partners as an Equities Trader. From his lofty office on the 104th Floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower it seemed that the world was literally and figuratively at the feet of this polite, dedicated, brilliant young man.  Then that dream exploded on the wings of hijacked planes and a religion hijacked by fanatical extremist devotees.  Wells Remy Crowther would counter those acts of crushing hate with acts of towering love. 

This athletic young man would have easily made it out, and could have. At 9:12 AM he would call his mother in Upper Nyack from his cellphone to say he was okay. His mother would never hear his voice again. For Wells Crowther (who had already somehow miraculously made it down to the 78th floor skylobby from the 104th) could not see the pain and fear and confusion in the Skylobby’s burning ruins and not ACT.  He led people to the only remaining usable stairwell to the lower floors and carried a facially burned woman down all the way to the 61st… and then he went back up for more people, and brought them down, then back up again… On March 19, 2002 Wells Remy Crowther was finally recovered in the company of several FDNY and EMS members – the group had been heading back UP with a ‘jaws of life’ device when the South Tower followed its’ sister in a slow cascade of doomed hopes and broken dreams. At least 18 people are known to owe their lives directly to the selfless acts committed by a man in a red bandanna. On December 15, 2006, through a Special Commendation by the NYC Fire Commissioner Welles Remy Crowther was made an honorary member of the FDNY.  This was the first time in history that the department had done that posthumously. The Crowther family was presented with a framed certificate of appointment which included a department badge and a red bandanna.

The word “hero” is sadly overused these days.  Pampered overpaid athletes simply doing their job are not heroes.  Politicians mouthing platitudes  and slogans of every variety are not heroes. Even those who survive an act of horrifying evil, or lose someone to it, are not heroes but victims of an assault on humanity. People who put their lives on the line everyday fighting fires, crimes and dire illnesses – or fighting in service of their country – are heroes. And people who go back upstairs over and over in a conflagration of staggering proportions, knowing full well that the edifice’s twin has already collapsed, and who are not even “official” rescue workers on the scene? Well to me, that’s the definition of a superhero, or perhaps, a saint. In the spirit of “No greater love than this…” , young Mr. Crowther laid down his life – not even for friends – but for perfect strangers. Strangers he believed were his brothers and sisters in the human condition. When I reach my last day on Earth, I hope that I can face it the way Wells Remy Crowther did – with courage, honor and love.

photo: Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust

 

10 Years Ago Today: 9/12/2001 Nyack the Day After

Of course, everyone over the age of 18 remembers where they were on “that day” 10 years ago – I was with most of the other Rand Realtors in Orangeburg at a conference that quickly came to a halt and we watched horrified as friends, neighbors, and even spouses died in front of us on TVs in the lounge of the Holiday Inn, before slowly singly and in pairs we slipped out and headed home to some perceived place of safety or at least of isolation from the horror.

But what about the next day? Do you remember where you were on September 12, 2001?

I do – I spent much of it at the Runcible Spoon cafe in the center of Nyack and just blocks from my house.  Still staggered by the events of the day before and sitting up literally all night watching the news and waiting for reports on loved ones and friends, we crept out of our homes and our modern-day isolation in desperate need of human contact. The first thing I noticed was the silence – not a single plane was traversing that blue sky. Almost no one was in a car, there were people on the street, strangely hushed and many with red-rimmed eyes. And there were… flags. In a trendy village that considered overtly patriotic displays to be inappropriate or gauche except on special holidays, suddenly Old Glory could be seen on flag poles, on porch railings, hanging from the terraces in my building the Ivanhoe and down the street at the Rivercrest, or tacked up in the windows of apartments or the few open businesses. I stifled an urge to cover my heart with my hand right in the middle of the cross walk.

Arriving at “The ‘Runce” there were some subdued greetings and some deep quiet hugs – assurance that YOU and I were still here, that there was some sanity left in this bad dream. And newspapers everywhere – I must confess, I still have not looked at that famous photo in the New York Times – it seems somehow obscene (and I mean that word in its’ original meaning) that the terror and horror of some poor soul’s last plummet to the ground could be tossed out like a vacation snapshot. I felt violated for that man when a friend reading the Times started to fold the paper back intending to show me, and I turned away. Looked around instead. Confusion. Muffled sobs. Inappropriate laughter. Then silence again. I heard a child’s voice ask “But when is mommy coming home???” and silently wept in my heart for the adult who could not answer that innocent question. A question that burned in my mind all day and that evening back home listening to Chuck and Sue continuing to give us more information on what was happening, I wrote a lyric for a children’s musical I was writing with composer Neil Berg. “Someone’s Always There For You” became the most loved song from the musical the HHPAC had commissioned us to write. 

The next morning there would be more flags, eventually every car would begin to look like it was in the Presidential Motorcade and bunting and banners were everywhere. On September 10 we were grumbling about parking, arguing over the Nurses’ lawsuit at Nyack Hospital and really oddly, on September 10, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was calling for a downsizing of the Department of Defense, giving it a grade “D” for business efficiency and comparing to “Soviet Central Planning”. The tragedy of September 11 put away our differences for a good long time – reminding us of our shared experience as human beings and as citizens of the United States of America.  We came together in a way that had not happened in some time – as shared crisis will always do.  Yes, as the tragedy receded into the past, the events of that day would be used over and over by numerous politicians of all stripes as a tool to be used to get elected; and religious denominations bemoaning perceived flaws in some other religious denomination or lifestyle, and yes, the makers of really tacky Americana kitsch would make a windfall on items that can be looked at now while shaking one’s head and thinking “how did I ever buy THAT?”  The tragedy has been used, and abused. But it did bring us together as a Nation when we had spent so much of the late ’80s and all of the 1990’s in a long era of self-interest and diffidence toward community.

Fast forward to September 11, 2011. When I was on the altar at St. Ann’s this morning (now yesterday morning, good grief!) singing “God Bless America” at 9:59AM – I found myself mentally and emotionally flashing back to the horror, the fear, the anger and the pain of that day and feared I would lose my composure before I could finish the song. Then I looked out at the congregation, many of the same faces I saw a decade ago, and I remembered the day AFTER – and the sense of community that saved us from despair in 2001 saved my song and tribute in 2011. One cable TV station chose to honor the 9-11 Anniversary by playing my favorite film “Casablanca” which puzzled me at first.  Then we got to the scene where everyone at Ricks is looking at the floor while the occupying Nazi army sings a victory song. One man with the courage to risk his life and resist – Victor Laslow or Wells Crowther? – goes to the bandstand and conducts the orchestra into playing “La Marseillaise” the National Anthem of then occupied and conquered France. Eventually everyone else in the cafe joins in the song – not a fist fight or exchange of shots, but a subtler battle for the heart and mind – the offensive Nazi battle hymn is drowned out by people realizing that they are more than the sum of their parts, and that when they join together they cannot be defeated.

Donations can be made to the  Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, P.O. Box 780, Nyack, NY 10960-0780;  crowthertrust@aol.com. The trust endows scholarships for Nyack High School students and helps fund local music, environmental and educational charities.  

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I asked a number of people in the last day or two to guess when the “Take Our Daughters To Work Day” and other “women in the workplace” programs began.  Most assumed sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, and many were completely unsure.  My buddy Kimmarie Mullin who happens to be President of the NYS Women’s Council of Realtors even pegged 1993 as the date Gloria Steinem founded the event.  However, the roots go back another 70 years, and not surprisingly the first incarnation of this type of program occurred right here in Nyack.

Historically, women have frequently had an easier time of it in Nyack than in many other places; able to achieve advances here earlier than in many other parts of the country.  I’ve written about some of Nyack’s important female figures like Suffragette Caroline Lexow, African-American Millionairess Cynthia Hesdra, Actress Helen Hayes, Author Carson McCullers, and Countess Alexandra Tolstoy – but the Nyacks were also home to a mid-1800’s female postmistress, one of the US’s first female physicians, and its first female Supreme Court clerk and of course the first female plastic surgeon – the beloved Dr. Martha MacGuffie who practiced for years at Nyack Hospital.  So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the first push for expanding the role of women in the workplace would arise here.

photo by H. Gibson, Nyack Library Collection

 The year was 1925, the “War to End All Wars” was seven years past, women gained the vote five years prior, and despite the mistaken idea that passing a constitutional amendment to outlaw alcohol sales would discourage alcoholism, the economy was soaring and the country’s mood was hopeful.  Having the formidable Ms. Lexow as a local resident may have helped spur them on, but whatever the reason, the female members of the Nyack High School class of 1925 decided the time was right.  There was a nationwide tradition called “Boys Week” where older High School boys were given a week where they would accompany adults around businesses, municipal offices and the like and then actually run them on the last day.  The young women of Nyack High’s senior class demanded equal time.  Their voices were loud enough to obtain national attention!

The New York Times of June 3, 1925 noted that the week began the day before, and blared the headline: “GIRLS RULE NYACK!”  The Times would go on to state: “… the first ‘girls week’ ever instituted in the United States began today with the students of Nyack High School taking over the management of several banks, trust companies, the Nyack Hospital, public library and other institutions. In addition, the large estate of  Mrs. B. Adriance was turned over to the girls, who superintended its’ management for one day.”

Though the headline was a bit overly dramatic, and frankly a bit dismissive, this still was a remarkable achievement for Nyack’s young women. One can only wonder what their male counterparts were thinking as their “Boys Week” that year certainly did not make the New York Times!  In a sign of the time period however, the Times does smugly reassure readers that unlike “Boys Week”, the “Girls” were limited to non-political jobs even though it was customary to “entrust the lads with the administration of cities” during their week.  I wonder if the journalist covering the event lived to see Terry Hekker elected first female Mayor of Nyack, followed by Nancy Blaker-Weber or  Upper Nyack’s Felicia Deyrup and South Nyack’s Patricia DuBow, for it seems that Nyackers are quite willing to entrust the “girls” with the administration of our villages!

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