Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Remembering and Celebrating the Extraordinary

I’m used to being the one with the press hat and reporter’s notebook, so it’s always a little unnerving for me to be on the other side of an interview. It’s also a rare occasion, fortunately. It’s not that I don’t trust other reporters to do quality work — it’s mostly that I don’t trust myself to speak off the cuff and provide insightful and quote-worthy remarks. I prefer to refine my words on the page before letting them loose into the world.

Fortunately, Star Tribune reporter Matt McKinney is a professional, and he did a thorough and thoughtful job with the obituary he wrote recently about my friend Ted Papermaster.

Matt interviewed me last week, and the story ran in last Sunday’s edition along with a photo of Ted. Here's a link to it, in case you didn’t see it already: Obituary: Theodore Papermaster, longtime Twin Cities pediatrician, World War II vet.

My friend Jane Burns, a former Des Moines Register colleague of mine, wrote to me after reading the piece and said she was glad to see that the Star Tribune still sees the value in publishing obituaries on “seemingly ‘ordinary’ people who have led extraordinary lives.”

I am, too.

That’s one reason why I got into journalism in the first place; I find the stories of real people so fascinating.

It’s impossible to convey everything about a person in a short piece, but you can get to the essence of what was important to him or her, and be reminded of how one life can have an impact on so many others. I know Ted made a difference to many, many people, in ways he probably didn’t even realize.

So on this Thanksgiving Eve, I am feeling especially thankful for Ted, and all the other people I have met through researching the life and career of my bandmaster great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.

Today would have been G. Oliver’s 144th birthday. He was born in 1870, on a farm outside the town of Wapello in Louisa County, Iowa. When he died at age 75, the St. Cloud Daily Times ran his obituary on the front page. The newspaper did not interview any Papermasters for that story — that would have been an interesting coincidence — but it ran a photo of G. Oliver and summarized his extraordinary life in about seven paragraphs.

G. Oliver on left, at age 29; on right, about age 74
While I generally admire brevity, in the case of G. Oliver I think there is much more to say — I plan on telling my story of his extraordinary life in about, oh, 25 chapters or so.

Happy Birthday, G. Oliver! Here’s to celebrating many more!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

In Remembrance: Dr. Theodore Papermaster, 1914-2014

My friend Ted the raconteur died yesterday, after a brief bout with pneumonia. He was 100 years young. I announce this with great sorrow, but also with a heart overflowing with gratitude. Getting the chance to hear his stories during the past two years has enriched my life, and I will miss him. I will miss his laugh.

If you follow my blog regularly, you probably know that I last saw Ted on Oct. 29, less than two weeks ago, and had a wonderful visit (I wrote about it in this blog post: Ted Talk: the Musical Picnic Surprise Edition). When I left his room at the nursing home that day, he was energized and happy because he had surprised me with the gift of some photos. Thats how I will remember him.

I will also remember him as the boy who played clarinet in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, under the direction of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, and as the boy who took piano lessons from my great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs.
Ted is the boy in the middle, in the front row. The photo was taken in 1925.
When I showed this to Ted, he began to hum his piano piece, “Minuet in G.
I also will picture him this way: this is the photo that he prominently displayed in his room at the nursing home. This is how he looked when he served in the Army during World War II.


Ted served for four years as a flight surgeon in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. He earned 11 battle stars, the Presidential Unit Citation with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters and a Soldiers Medal. He told me several stories about his time in the service, including a few “off-color” ones he apologized for in advance, since — as he said — I seemed like such a nice person. I assured him I was not easily offended.

The war was deeply personal for Ted, a devout Jew. His grandfather was a famous North Dakota rabbi who had emigrated from Lithuania to the United States in 1891. In early August of 1945, after Germany had been defeated, but the war was still raging with Japan, Ted took the opportunity to visit what was then Palestine and is now Israel. During the flight back to Italy, the plane’s radio operator jumped up and announced that the United States had just dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.

“We were the happiest guys in the world because we knew we were all going home,” Ted told me during one of my visits.

Army logistics being what they were, Ted did not return to Minnesota until Nov. 1, 1945. When he arrived at his parents’ house in St. Cloud, he discovered that G. Oliver was widowed and was living across the street. Ted visited his former bandmaster and told him stories about the Army. This was shortly before G. Oliver moved to Bemidji to take a job organizing and directing a high school band on the Red Lake Indian reservation. The two men did not see each other again. G. Oliver died in Bemidji on Jan. 25, 1946.

After the war, Ted fought another war, against polio. He worked with the Sister Kenny Institute during the polio epidemic of 1952. He had a long career as a pediatrician in the Twin Cities and for a short time took care of my twin cousins, Brent and Scott Riggs, in the late 1960s when they were babies.

This last piece of news, about my cousins, had been a surprise to me. But during our visits, I uncovered yet another connection between the Riggs and Papermaster families and was able to unveil a surprise of my own: I found out that Ted’s dad, Bert, had met G. Oliver before either of them lived in St. Cloud. Bert had played clarinet in G. Oliver’s band in Grand Forks in 1909. (I wrote about this discovery in a January 2013 blog post, Another Visit with Dr. Ted).

Ted was preceded in death by his parents, Bert and Sonia Papermaster; his brother, Dr. Ralph Papermaster; his sister, Dale Fein; and his granddaughter-in-law Meredith Weimer Bender. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy; daughters, Gail Bender (Mark Satz) and Linda Papermaster (Nahum Gat); son, Barry Papermaster (Cheryl Buckles); grandchildren Brian (Leah Solo), Seth, David and Herschel Bender, Aviva and Illana Gat, Benjamin, Ariel and Zachary Papermaster; and great-granddaughter Samantha Weimer Bender. His funeral is tomorrow (Wednesday) at 2 p.m. at the Adath Yeshurun Cemetery Chapel in Edina.

Ted’s obituary in today’s Star Tribune.
I talked to Ted on the phone once and visited him seven times during the past two years, beginning in November of 2012. Each time I talked to him, he told me something new. (My first blog post about Ted is here: A House Call with Dr. Ted).

I loved the fact that he not only remembered vivid details from his childhood, but he also remembered things I had told him a few months earlier; for example, he remembered that my daughter played the French horn. His memory seemed better than that of most people my age. I also loved the fact that he was still reading books, big fat books, mostly about World War II. His mind continued to be active, long after his body had begun to fail him.

Whenever our visits were interrupted by a nurse or some other employee of the nursing home, he would introduce me in a booming voice: “This is Joy Riggs. Her great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was my former bandmaster.”

The second-to-last visit I had with Ted was in late April. I had woken him up from a nap when I arrived, and he seemed to be feeling melancholy that day, although we still had some laughs over his stories. At the end of the visit I was hesitant to leave because I knew he would be sad, and he seemed reluctant to say goodbye.

“If I don’t see you again, be well, do well. As they say, shalom. Do you know what shalom means?” he asked me.

“It means peace?”

“Yes, it means peace. It also means goodbye. I’ll tell you the story about that one day, too,” he said.

I left the room and fought back tears on the way to the parking lot.

Just like I am doing as I write this.

Shalom, Ted. I am not the raconteur you are, but I will do my best to keep your stories alive as I complete my book. They are fantastic. Which, as a matter of fact, reminds me of a slightly off-color joke you told me once . . .


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ted Talk: the Musical Picnic Surprise Edition

I knew as soon as I saw Ted’s face yesterday that he was feeling chipper about something. When I knocked on his door, stepped into the room and peered around the corner, I found him sitting on the side of his bed, looking alert. He was expecting me.

“I have a surprise for you,” he said, nearly singing the words.

“You do?”

My heart began to beat a little faster. I had a guess about what that might mean, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“There’s a thick book over there on the shelf, right in the middle — do you see it? Can you get it for me?” he asked.

“The book Full Harvest?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

I maneuvered between the bed and the walker next to it and reached for the book. It was heavy. I handed it to him and sat down on the bed next to him. I tried to wait patiently while he paged through the 900-page historical novel, looking for something.

Ted opened the book to a spot three-fourths of the way back, where a bookmark was placed. I could see that the chapter it marked was about his grandfather, Benjamin Papermaster, the famous North Dakota rabbi. The first page of the chapter included a black and white picture of the elder Papermaster as a young man.

From my previous visits with Ted in the nursing home, I knew how much he loved and admired his grandfather. I also knew that my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, had known and admired Ted’s grandfather. In a recommendation letter G. Oliver wrote to the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army on Ted’s behalf back in 1941, G. Oliver had said of Benjamin Papermaster, “I never knew a finer man.”

But that page in the book wasn’t the object of Ted’s search. After another minute or two, he turned to the back of the book, where he located three small black and white photos. They were not part of the book; they were loose and had been placed there temporarily for safekeeping. Two of them were about the size of my iPhone; the third was almost half that size.

I took a deep breath. I sensed that my guess had been right.

Ted had insisted a few visits ago that he had nothing new to tell me about his days in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, and no new memories to share about my great-grandfather. But I had happily discovered that this was not true. During my last visit in April, after I showed him an old family photo of G. Oliver, his wife, Islea, and their children, Ted came up with a new, tantalizing fact: he had a photo, somewhere at his house, of his mother and my great-grandmother pretending to play band instruments. The photo had been taken at a park in St. Cloud when the families of the adult band members had gathered for a picnic. Ted’s father, Bert, had played clarinet in the adult band.

“Here’s what I had in mind for you. Some pictures,” Ted said.

He held them in his hands and examined the smallest one. It was a photo of about a dozen middle-aged women, arranged in three rows. They were holding band instruments and posed as if they were about to perform a tune. The women were wearing long dresses and were either kneeling or standing in the grass, with trees and a lake behind them.


“Oh my gosh!”

I could feel my eyes widen. I leaned in closer and peered through the bottom half of my glasses, wishing I had either a magnifying glass or younger eyes. Or both. I scanned the tiny faces for anyone who looked familiar. I pointed to a woman in the front right corner.

“Is that your mom?” I asked.

Ted got his glasses from the nightstand and put them on, so he could read the words scrawled in black ink on the back of the photo.

He had apparently written the identifying words years ago.

“St. Cloud Municipal Band Picnic. Ladies picture with instruments. Some front row, right end . . .” he read aloud.

I interrupted him. “Does that say Sonia — your mom?”

“Yes. Sonia, front row, 1924 or 25 — I wasn’t sure which year that was,” he said. “They took the men’s instruments, which they can’t play, and they did that for a joke.”

He turned the photo back over so we could see the women’s faces again. Sonia was wearing a white dress, and her dark hair was pulled back from her face. She was holding what appeared to be an alto saxophone, although at first I thought it was a clarinet.

“Yes, that’s my mother,” Ted confirmed.

He would have been about 10 years old when the photo was taken. He was now 100 years old.

Ted moved on to a second picture. This was the one he really wanted to show me. This one was more of an action shot. Six women were visible, standing, holding instruments they appeared to be playing. Ted’s mom was second from the left, in the foreground. On the right side of the photo, I spotted a woman with an ample figure holding a sousaphone. She had not been in the previous photo. But she looked familiar anyway.


“One of these ladies is Mrs. Riggs,” Ted said, peering at the faces. He pointed to the figure on the right with the sousaphone. “I think that’s her. Is she kind of a fat lady?”

“Yes, that looks like it could be her,” I agreed.

“That’s your great-grandmother!” he pronounced triumphantly.

The surprise was revealed. I could tell he was greatly enjoying this. I was, too.

He read the words on the back of the second photo: “St. Cloud Municipal Band Picnic. Ladies with the instruments for a fun picture.”

We both laughed.

I rested my hand on his shoulder and turned to face him. I tried to speak a little louder than my normal quiet voice, to make sure he could hear me.

“Ted, you have made my month!”

The third photo showed a young Ted, playing clarinet, and his younger brother, Ralph, playing soprano saxophone. This was taken in about 1928 or 1929, according to the writing on the back. The boys were standing in front of their house, showing off their band uniforms. It was impossible to tell from the black and white photo, but Ted explained that the uniforms were blue, with a red stripe down the leg of the pants, and red trimming on the cap. The boys also wore red ties.


He handed all three photos to me.

“They’re yours forever,” he said. “Guard them with your life!”

I think he was only half-joking. But I took the admonition seriously. After our visit, I transported them home safely, where I will indeed guard them with my life.

What a gift, and what a fun surprise.

There is no way to adequately express my thanks for such a gift. But this blog post is an attempt.

Every visit I have with you is a gift, Ted. Thank you. 

With love and gratitude,

Your favorite bonehead

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Writing Retreat in Wisconsin

Last week at this time, I had just returned from an amazing four-day writing retreat at Faith’s Lodge in northern Wisconsin. I was even more productive than I could have hoped: during the retreat, I wrote two essays, worked on Chapter One of my book, wrote a scene for a later chapter of the book, and transcribed my two most recent interviews with Ted Papermaster, one of G. Oliver’s former band boys.

I am feeling even more excited now about the direction and progress of my book, thanks to the feedback of the other women writers at the retreat, and the encouragement of retreat organizer and facilitator extraordinaire, writer and teacher Kate Hopper.

I took a break from writing one afternoon to explore the lodge property.
And I saw this little guy on the path.
I am hoping to return for the next retreat in February. It will be colder and snowier then, no doubt, but all the better for sitting inside in front of one of the lodge’s many fireplaces and immersing myself in my writing.

How could I not be inspired to write, with views like this?!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Writing Accountability Plan – My New Great Idea

We have been celebrating my youngest child’s birthday for the past couple of days – first with a friend party/sleepover, then with a family party, and today with leftover cake and ice cream. Elias turned 14, which seems impossible in some ways. What’s even more unsettling than how tall he’s getting is what else his birthday represents for me – it marks the passage of another year of my work on the G. Oliver Riggs project.

Elias celebrates turning 14
It was eight years ago this month that I first began to help my dad with some research into the career of his paternal grandfather. At that time, I didn’t know where the research would lead, or how long it would take, but it seemed like an interesting and important project to pursue.

The project has come a long way in those eight years. And although I sometimes feel discouraged that so much time has passed without the completion of an “end product,” I also realize that the time has been necessary for the project to grow and evolve into its current shape: a narrative non-fiction book that explains G. Oliver’s pioneering efforts to shape Minnesota's community and school band traditions and explores the power of music to connect people across generations.

Because I do want to complete the book before another eight years have passed, I recently came up with a writing accountability plan. Instead of proceeding with a vague goal of finishing the book “soon,” I have created specific goals and deadlines for completing all of the chapters in the next 12 months. My friend and writing colleague Randy Brown, who inspired me to start this blog in 2010, has agreed to play the role of bad cop editor and help hold me accountable for meeting my deadlines.

I already achieved my first goal when I sent him a draft of the book’s prologue on Oct. 1. If I continue to meet the deadlines I’ve set, I will have a draft of the entire book done around the time Elias turns 15. That, my friends, will be an achievement worthy of several days of celebration and a generous amount of cake!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Channeling Family History

Help – I’ve already fallen behind in watching Ken Burns’ new film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS, and now I discover that season two of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. is starting tonight on PBS.

I never even saw one episode of season one! I guess I’m going to have to block out more time in my schedule to watch television. It counts as research, right?

I also never found the time to finish Gates’ four-part show in 2010 called Faces of America, although I enjoyed it very much. All of these shows are right up my family history/research alley. Maybe I can binge-watch this weekend, and get caught up on those Roosevelt episodes, too.

Tonight, the new season of Gates’ latest show kicks off with “In Search of Our Fathers,” an episode featuring writer Stephen King and actors Gloria Reuben and Courtney Vance, who learn more about their fathers’ histories.

Here’s a preview:



Other well-known Americans who will be included in this season include Tina Fey, Ben Affleck, Billie Jean King, Carole King, Anderson Cooper, Angela Bassett, and Ken Burns himself. You can’t get away from that guy these days.

I want to be sure to catch the episode he’s in, based on the brief clip shown in the preview, where he tells Gates: “My mother died when I was eleven. I think the reclaiming of the loss made me an amateur historian.”

The other quote I particularly liked from the preview was from Billie Jean King, who was busy making history herself when I was a kid. She tells Gates, “The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself.”

If you need to contact me tonight, don’t bother calling between 7 and 8. I have a date with Twin Cities Public Televsion, and I will be busy finding out more about myself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

12 Unbelievable Photos of My Great-Grandfather

You won’t believe where we’ve spotted Flat G. Oliver Riggs on vacation this summer! The 143-year-old bandmaster really got around, visiting his old music-related haunts in Bemidji, Des Moines and Chicago. He also found time to attend a Riggs family picnic in the Twin Cities. It must help to travel light.

Take a look and vote for your favorite!

No. 12: Reconnecting with old friends Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji
Paul Bunyan and Babe date back to 1937; G. Oliver directed Bemidji bands from 1919-1923.

No. 11: Admiring himself at the Beltrami County History Center
G. Oliver with his 1922 Bemidji Boys’ Band

No. 10: Along the Bemidji lake front, circa 1900 (via the history center exhibit)
Before G. Oliver’s time as director, band concerts were held along the lakeshore.

No. 9: Surrounded by descendants at the Riggs Family Picnic



No. 8: With his mini me, Griffin — or is it the other way around?



No. 7: Goofing at the Drake Tent at the 2014 Iowa State Fair
G. Oliver, Oberlin grad, class of 1892; Steve, Drake grad, class of 1990

No. 6: Strolling the grounds of the 1909 Iowa State Fair
G. Oliver played cornet in an Iowa regimental band at the 1910 State Fair.

No. 5: Visiting the Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair Exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago
G. Oliver’s future wife, Islea, attended the World’s Fair with her parents and sister.

No. 4: Admiring the Bean and the contrast between old and new in Millenium Park
G. Oliver studied violin in Chicago in 1894.

No. 3: Touring the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
G. Oliver and his Montana Cowboy Band performed in the auditorium lobby in 1912.

No. 2: Shopping for music at the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave.
G. Oliver studied cornet under Chicago bandmaster A.F. Weldon. 


No. 1: Pondering the quote in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building

The historic 10-story building was designed specifically for working artists – people like G. Oliver!