Jeanne Johnson, chair of music and dance at Kilgore College, said she can clearly remember the first time she saw Van Cliburn, the world renowned classical pianist.

At 78, Cliburn died Wednesday at his Fort Worth home from bone cancer.

Cliburn became a household name in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. The chairman of the judge's panel reportedly kissed Cliburn on both cheeks when he won, according to a 1958 Associated Press article.

"He went to Moscow and took the city by storm," a 1958 International News Service article states. "Soon there was standing room only at his performances. Even the judges were applauding."

The 23-year-old musician was welcomed home with a ticker-tape parade — the first one given to a classical musician — and had played for every president since Eisenhower.

"I was a kid in elementary when he came on the scene," Ms. Johnson said. "I watched him on TV."

When Ms. Johnson came to Kilgore College, she said Cliburn's name was mentioned often. He is often referred to as Kilgore's favorite son by locals.

One day she was singing at a wedding when the town's famous son walked into the chapel. Ms. Johnson said she had to convince herself she didn't recognize him to get through the song she was performing.

"After it was over, he wanted to meet me, and he was so complimentary and made me feel special," she said. "He had that ability to do that with everybody. He had a zest for living."

Annette Morgan, longtime friend of Cliburn and financial aid director at Kilgore College, said he was humble about his great talent and appreciated all forms of art, as well as history, and studying other cultures.

"He loved hearing young musicians, and someone who was very promising just thrilled him to death," she said. "It was not about him. … He could play anything, he wanted that young musician to continue (playing)."

Mrs. Morgan said she met Cliburn when she took classes from his mother as a child. She said he already was at the Juilliard School in New York. When he was home, he would meet the students and listen to their concerts — making them all nervous.

Cliburn's mother was his only teacher until he attended Julliard, Mrs. Morgan said. He started lessons when he was three and by the time he was 12, he debuted with the Houston Symphony, according to the 1958 news article. He won his first contest the same year, playing Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, the AP article states.

Old newspaper articles say the little boy got his start by tugging on his mother's skirt and saying "teach me, too" but Mrs. Morgan said she remembers another variation of the story.

One day, Mrs. Cliburn heard music coming from a piano after a student was supposed to be on his way home, Mrs. Morgan said. When Cliburn's mother returned to the room to scold the boy for worrying his own mother by being late, she found her own 3-year-old son playing the same song the student had just finished.

"He had an ear, memory and the talent," Mrs. Morgan said. "She said if you want to learn the piano, you are going to learn correctly."

He played for millions of people, reportedly bringing some crowds to tears, but Cliburn left behind a deeper legacy than only sharing his musical talents.

When Kilgore College built a new auditorium in 1966, it was only natural to name it after Cliburn. He donated a grand piano to the college that is still in use today, Ms. Johnson said.

Endowments for three music scholarships also are available to Kilgore College students in his name.

"It was a legacy of excellence," Ms. Johnson said "He had great talent, but he was never satisfied with what was easy. He wanted to do the best he could, even if it was hard."

He also donated a grand piano to the East Texas Symphony Association in 1971, according to a Tyler Moring Telegraph article. Cliburn reportedly tested the instrument in the factory before it was shipped and was the first to play it publically in Caldwell Auditorium.

The Van Cliburn Foundation was set up in 1962 in Fort Worth. Carla Thompson, chairman of the board of directors, said the foundation, which hosts a piano competition and offers professional career guidance to the winner, was set up in his honor. She said while he did not set it up, he has served as an inspiration to the students who compete.

"Just this namesake in the world of music is something every pianist knows and aspires to be," Ms. Thompson said. "He's been a real inspiration and very encouraging of young musicians."

Mrs. Morgan said through all Cliburn's success, his heart remained in East Texas.

"Van never forgot his East Texas roots," Mrs. Morgan said. "He was a great patriot. He loved this county He always opened concerts with the Star Spangled Banner, which is not really done by a classical pianist, but he did it, and he was doing it before he won the Russian prize."

 

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