For A Song

Fri, 02/12/2016 - 2:45pm

The last Sunday in January came the sad news of the passing of Eugene Rankin, southern gentleman, accomplished pianist, teacher, beloved neighbor and friend. He was 93.

Seven years ago this March, I wrote to my brother, idle musings on an approaching storm, then, because my heart could not contain the sadness, I wrote a second time, including the news that Gene's precious island house had been destroyed by fire.

It was old, a simple Cape, saved by him in the 1950s, before fast destruction and replacement was a consideration, if not a given. There are many places that are summer houses but rarely summer homes, structures, no matter how grand, that are lived in briefly before, for whatever reasons, they are sold and resold. Gene's cottage was an exception.

He bought it for a song, but he bought it for what a ramshackle old house on Block Island was worth back then. It is a story of that time, borrowing — by today's standards — small amounts of money from relatives and friends, scraping together the total, and only after a few years of work, securing a mortgage to bring it up to modern standards.

The cottage became an anchor, a bit of an older time that stayed, solid and true, amidst a maze of new building. Years ago I walked from Cooneymus round on the beach, crawled up the cliff by Miss Dickens’ house, went out to the road and back to my car. I was especially struck by Gene’s beautiful little house, a survivor, an oasis, more striking in its simplicity than many of its larger, by most measures, more stunning neighbors. 

Then it was gone, swept up away by fire, a loss shared by everyone who had traveled that road or looked across that pond and seen a bit of history among the ruins of modernity. There seemed such a finality when I wrote “We were all blessed it had such a good steward. We offer him our gratitude and our hearts.”

He would turn 87 the year of the fire; and the sadness was exacerbated by my not imagining him rebuilding, much less painstakingly recreating that little Cape. He did — such was the spirit of Gene Rankin — maximizing the interior spaces, making them new and more useable. The craftsmanship was so true the re-creation looked to be an old house, dressed in shiny new cedar shingles.

Gene was a trained musician, a professional pianist who first came to Block Island after a long tour, accompanying Anna Russell, opera soprano and satirist, performing in New Zealand and Australia. This was a sleepy summer place, still open and free and he walked and walked and found the little house in need of loving care.

He cherished memories of every moment spent here. One year I worked a House Tour and wrote of the experience, painstakingly not identifying the generous homeowners, offering only hints of location.

Gene called me, which he did whenever something I had written touched him. That week's column had sent him deep into that memory bank of his. “Was that Eddie B's place?” which, of course, it had been, another of the older houses, like Gene's, fallen to disuse, then saved from the march of time and the elements. He regaled me with tales of playing cards there, and maybe having a drink or two, with his little group of summer neighbors. He made me wish I had been a bit older, and more artistic and — gasp — on the West Side! 

My mother went to a funeral at the church up the road from Gene's. She came home with two comments. The church was empty when she arrived, the lady being laid to rest in an open casket, her large diamonds glittering on her hands. Then in came Gene Rankin, tool box in hand because one never knew when that organ would have to be coaxed into cooperation. 

The service was for a long-time benefactress of the tiny church, Miss Ruby, Gene called her, the lady who had facilitated the purchase of his house in the 1950s. It was not a time to allow the old organ to have its own way.

He taught music at at the Country Day School in Greenwich, retiring after 50 years from what began as just a couple of days a week job; he was then in his late eighties. His more recent summer trips were more constricted by when his relatives could travel with him but he still managed, adhering to a long established routine of coming to town for a New York Times. He would come by and visit in the quiet time of mid-day, when there was a parking space near enough to navigate from it with his walker to the door of the shop where I work. 

He would talk of his teaching in Greenwich, his joy in his students. And he spoke of the “old days” on the West Side, and his little summer conclave of musicians and academics. He smiled over the memory of past and the promise of more lunches at The Oar with a very dear friend.

The recent deaths in the world of popular music prompted someone to call this the year the music died and I thought of Gene, the classical pianist who with his friends brought fine music to the ballroom of the Spring House many summers ago. It was an extraordinary effort and lasted several seasons, part of the bridge between the bleak and the boom.

Change was on the summer breeze, but by that time the North Carolina boy who traveled the world on his talent, the pianist from New York, who became a teacher from Connecticut, had found that summer place of which so many people only dream. In many ways, he kept it alive himself with his good humor and resiliency. 

Even when he lost his house filled with memories he took what could have been a crushing loss and turned it to a triumph. That kind of music never dies.