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Memories Of Those Who Mattered

Ray Greuter, whose wake was Thursday, taught me just as my mother did; she died 10 years ago today

Where else could I be, on the 10th anniversary of my mother's death, but at another wake?

Where else could I be, but at a place that honored somebody like Ray Greuter, my Point Boro music teacher who taught me things others couldn't; who, like my mother, always flashed a broad smile at me, trying so hard to make me grin, because I wouldn't.

There he was again, cut-out pictures of him pasted to construction paper, nearly every one showing him with that same long hair, mustache and clenched, shiny-white, go-for-broke smile. "The Many Faces of Ray," it said, showing the Memorial Middle School teacher from the time he was hired, in 1970, until the time he passed last week.

Resting on his closed casket was his trumpet, the brass shining in the brighter-than-normal room light. In the background was the sound of his piano, with Ray playing on it, banging out a string of holiday tunes, from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and on, sounding like a middle-aged garage band.

As you heard it, playing over the small speakers at the August F. Schmidt Memorial Home, you could see him all over again: Ray with his long hair and mustache, playing holiday tunes long after the holiday was over, flashing that playful, powerful smile so others would, too.

Ray Greuter turned into one of the great teachers of my life, the only one who could get me to care about the difference between a quarter note and a whole note; who would get me to even think of listening to a Supertramp album, let alone memorizing the lyrics to "The Logical Song;" the one who could get me to care about what John Lennon was really trying to say on "Rubber Soul."

In the same way my mother taught me to live, and love life and laughter, Ray taught me how to love what others sang, or played or composed.

These were the people who shaped lives, who shaped my life. They weren't famous enough to get an obituary in the big newspapers. But they were the people who cared, who gave me moments each day that I looked forward to.

Now they're gone: Ray, since Jan. 10; mom, since January 2003. But when we hear a song, or we see something on T.V., or we remember an anniversary, or even go to a wake, we remember people like these, and why they mattered.

Each day, back in seventh and eighth grade, I looked forward to Ray Greuter's style, his groovy appeal. "Groovy Greuter" they called him. I liked how he engaged the not-so-engaged, and I'd marvel at how he'd grab a bored kid's attention by merely admiring his concert T-shirt.

Chances were that he not only knew the show emblazoned on the kid's shirt; he probably went to it, too.

I could be a sullen kid, feeling picked on by others who were bigger and stronger. I would walk into his class, at the Memorial Middle School music room, with my head tilting toward the floor, my face merely a shadow on my shoulder.

Ray would jump in front of me, crouching down slightly to level of my face. Then came the clenched, broad, playful and powerful smile. Most of the time, I laughed right back, because I had to.

Back around 1980, I looked forward to that, just as I looked forward to my mother's smile, her long laugh that you never wanted to end. You'd tell my mother a joke, and you never got something fake in return. If it was funny, she'd laugh until she was gasping for air.

My mother died in our house on Barton Avenue, in Point Boro, on Jan. 18, 2003. Her wake was at the Pable-Evertz Funeral Home on Beaver Dam Road, close enough so everybody we knew could attend. People from my high school. People from dad's school, Drum Point in Brick.

But even people from North Jersey who worked with me at The Record newspaper, way up in Hackensack, were there. Whether the drive was long or short, they still came, because they knew it mattered.

Ray Greuter's wake was in Elizabeth, far from the school where he taught for 38 years. Far from the district he taught in, Point Boro, the same one that took a chance on a 22-year-old musician with hippie clothes and eclectic tastes, way back in 1970s.

It was far from my mother's own grave off Trenton Avenue, where I planned to be Friday, the day of the anniversary. But in the guest book was a long list of people from far away, too. My old gym teacher. A guy I used to basketball with. Another former teacher. Another former student.

Whether the drive was long or short, they still came, because Ray still mattered.

Just a few miles away from the funeral home, in Elizabeth, was another graveyard, a place where a personal journey began. I first went to the Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, just over the Elizabeth border, in late 2008, once I heard that some of my family, my mother's ancestors, were buried there.

I had been planning on writing a book that was ultimately published in October 2011 called "Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Famiy From Generations of Mental Illness." For my research, my first visit was to this graveyard, in 2008, where 10, maybe more, of my ancestors were buried. It was the trip that inspired me to keep digging, to keep moving forward with this book on mental illness, one that seemed next-to-impossible to write, and there were even smaller odds that it'd get published.

Back in 2008, I was writing about how my mother suffered her whole life, suffering over something that wasn't her fault. It was something we lived with, too, something that weighed heavily on me, and my family, back in those early teen years, back when Ray was struggling to teach me, and others, to be happy.

In between my mother's smiles and laughter, in between the joy we felt too rarely from her, we dealt with her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, stuff that made us want to hide our smiles, and swallow our laughter.

Stuff like her washing her hands until they were red and flaky; her incessant questions to my father about things so trivial. Everybody at school seemed so normal. Some at school would mock me, others would smile at me, only they couldn't make me laugh, or even feel a little bit good, not like Ray could.

Back in 2008, I wanted to know more about my mother, and her family. I wanted to know about those rumors that the people buried there suffered, too, iike she did.

When I went there, I saw names I didn't even know. I saw my great-grandfather, great-uncle and great-great grandmother, buried in graveyard plots, with headstones split in two, or turned completely upside down. Somebody hadn't been there in 40, 50 years, even just to clean up a little. Maybe they just didn't matter anymore.

I went to the graveyard office, and found out all I needed to know: All three were victims of gas asphyxiation, all likely suicidal. When the person who pulled their information cards, and told me what they said, her gasp said it all: I knew I had a story to tell.

I also learned something about my family, myself, and what was apparent. Mental illness was in my family, that it didn't stop necessarily with one person.

That day, back in 2008, began a period of discovery for me, a trip through libraries and town halls, through old hospitals and homes. That day began a period of finding out why my mother was the way she was, and why Mr. Greuter saw what he saw in my face, back when all that was weighing on me. That day, I found out why he felt he needed to cheer me up, when nobody else could.

Just a few miles from Greuter's wake, I went back there, to Evergreen Cemetery, because I felt my mother's spirit, just as I felt Ray's.

The gates were closed, and the cemetery was dark, with not a light was shining anywhere. But, in the darkness, I could see mother, just like I could see Ray, smiling at me like they did many years before, getting me to laugh, because I should.

Horse mom January 18, 2013 at 06:04 PM
It was touching Tom, I knew right away that was Ray playing the piano as soon as I walked in , seeing the picture from my year book made me smile on the " many faces of Ray" board . I wish i was able to attend today's service , but my heart is with him, thank you again for you beautiful writing Take care Wendy
Darlene Rasmussen January 18, 2013 at 07:02 PM
What an incredibly touching article. Thank you for sharing with us!
Drew McCarsky January 21, 2013 at 05:30 PM
Hi Tom, thank you for the nice story. I am crushed by Ray's all to soon leave of us. He was a deep rooted part of my young life. I could share ANYTHING with Ray and knew that he would never repeat it. He taught me so much.He knew my wife teri well too. Her Brother was Glenn Palen, who died suddenly while in school,He was a member of the Memorial School band, playing percussion, and there was an award for many years given to a drummer in his honor. I live in Georgia now- Too far and too sudden to be able to fly or drive up and be back for work. We chose to send Money to the Scholarship that is being setup in ray's memory in lieu of the flowers we wanted to send. I had the arrangement and what I wanted to write on it, But I swear, I could feel him saying "No ,help another musician like I helped you"- that typical pay it forward attitude of his. He never expected anything back for what he gave me, Only my friendship, respect, laughter and love, Something i will always be sending him. It hurts to know he's gone, but I..No WE are better people that Ray touched our lives and our development in some manner and degree. regards, Drew Class of '81 PPBHS
Tish Ferguson January 23, 2013 at 03:09 AM
Tom - OMGosh! Congrats on your amazing column! How incredibly poignant your post is! What a tribute to Ray Greuter because "Everything that Ray did was real and true and honest and simple and even noble," (and kids have an amazing way of finding comfort in such qualities!). To continue the theme of what Leonard Bernstein said about Louis Armstrong - "Every time Ray put his trumpet to his lips (or his fingers to a keyboard or patiently transferred knowledge that propelled a student forward), even if only to practice three notes, he did it with his whole soul." I was a student @ Memorial Middle School when "that creative calm guy in the middle of any high pitch moment" Mr. Greuter arrived, (Yes - Mr. Scardina was principal!). Ray's incredible photographic memory housed the "common language" that was the music and the beat of the poetry that lived inside the lyrics he loved. You did a spectacular job explaining how Ray's fascination & interest in the world around him transferred energy and hope to others. Your beautiful words depicting Ray, your Mom and your triumph over difficult chapters in your life took my breath away! I look forward to reading your book. Bravo - well done! With utmost respect - Tish Ferguson
Horse mom January 28, 2013 at 03:43 AM
Just a reminder, we are all meeting at the Ark at 3:30 Monday the 28 To celebrate Rays life , share stories ( I have many ) remember a talented compassionate, kind man, teacher, friend , please join us if you can, also donations are being accepted at the gathering for the Scholarship in Ray name, if you can not make it to the ark you can send your donation to Memorial Middle School att Lisa Miller or email me for more information at greatwht@ aol.com Thank you , as Ray said as he left a room , or good bye on the phone " kisses"

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