John Baer

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Meet John Baer from Arroyo Grande, California

John Baer is a retired airline pilot who flew for United Airlines piloting the 737, 727, DC-8, and 747 to such far away places as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and Taiwan. Since retiring, John has spent most of his time doing volunteer work, especially for the San Luis Obispo Symphony and its popular Music Van, which brings demonstrations to thousands of children each year, inspiring them to pursue music by allowing them to try out the instruments themselves.

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Last year, with California state budget cuts in the schools, class sizes grew by over 40%, forcing the Music Van program to teach 30+ children, versus 20+ students in years previous. "We had enough instruments for 24 children, but not for 34 which meant that too many children were standing around waiting to try an instrument," John wrote on his application. "Considering that the hands-on portion of the presentation is only 20 minutes it was valuable time wasted for too many children."

Seeing the need for more instruments, John requested $4,000.00 to purchase two new cellos, five used brass instruments (two trombones, two trumpets, and a french horn), and hard cases to protect them during the frequent loading and unloading of the Music Van.

The Music Van visits approximately 4,500 children annually so, over an expected ten year life span of the instruments, around 45,000 children will benefit from John’s gift.

Besides being a volunteer, John and his wife, Becky, grow their own fruit and vegetables and raise chickens for eggs. John’s other interests include the ham radio, and of course, classical music. He also dabbles in growing orchids.

Diary Starts Here

February 11, 2011

Andrea Stoner, SLO Symphony's Music Education Coordinator, sent us an update with photos of John, and the Music Van volunteers, in action...

"We’ve been out on the road for a few weeks now and the new instruments are making quite a splash. It is so wonderful to be able to share them with the schools. Almost all of our older instruments had been handed down and repaired many times, it is such a treat to have everything in working order and a pleasure to pack them up each day in their beautiful new cases.

I’ve attached a few photos taken by one of our volunteers. My favorite is the one of John playing the cello, a little Symphony humor.

Thank you again for your help. Our new instruments are being tooted, banged, bowed and honked by hundreds of central coast children every day. It’s fantastic! Sincerely, Andrea"

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July 19, 2010

The SLO Symphony's Music Education Coordinator, Andrea Stoner (on right), sent us a photo of her and a co-worker modeling the 3/4 cello, bow, and soft case that was just purchased for the Music Van.

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July 12, 2010

Hi, It's Damon. I'm the administrator here for all things heroes. Yesterday, I was returning from a weekend of golf in Arizona and, by chance, ran into John at the Phoenix Airport. I first recognized John's face amongst a group of people as I was moving forward in a line to board a Southwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles. As the line moved forward, and I stepped closer to John, I began to doubt if it was really him... I mean, what are the odds? Finally, I passed right in front of John and thought "That's got to be him," so it said, "John?" John was a little startled to say the least and looked at me like, "Who are you? Why would you know my name?" I quickly introduced myself and John was happily relieved. It was such a chance encounter I think we both were a little taken aback by it all. We chatted very briefly and then I had to keep moving to board the plane. As it turned out, both John and I were on the same flight, and when we landed at LAX I was able to catch up with him again and chat a bit more. We talked about the SLO Symphony's Music Van program and all the wonderful things they are doing for the kids in the San Luis Obispo area. I also learned that John is a longtime fly fisherman who ties his own flies (no easy task, and a real artform in itself).

June 17, 2010

John sent me an email this morning about how my surprise call came about...

"Hello Jenny, Well, I have to say yesterday was a complete surprise. I did see quite a few symphony people coming into the office but many of those had helped with Music Van at one time or another so I didn't give it another thought. Andrea had prepared an agenda for the meeting which was at each seat. Everything fit. When Andrea picked up the phone and said it was for me I couldn't imagine who knew I was at the symphony office, except maybe for Becky trying to track me down to stop at Trader Joes or Costco on my way home. When I heard 'Jenny' on the speaker phone I could feel the adrenalin rush. It was quite a day.

To give you a little more info on the Music Van: In late November we send out letters to all schools in the county encouraging them to sign up for this wonderful program. It's first-to-respond, first reserved. Strangely, not all schools sign up. That's a mystery to me especially considering that it's a free program. We do request a $25 donation to cover van gas and instrument cleaning materials but on average only 40% of the schools make that donation. The van has eight regular presenters and each one can make up to four presentations per day, but that's pushing it. Three classes are ideal for me. Because of the set up and take down time required for unpacking and re-packing all the instruments it's better use of the time to make three presentations than one.

We do take along one extra musician volunteer who helps set up and demonstrate use of the instruments in the hands-on portion. And we ask the home room teachers to find a couple of parents who will help out. The parent aides don't need any musical experience; they help clean the instruments as each child has finished his solo performance (often a one-note recital and we hope a child can get at least one note.) It's a fast-paced performance since all the brass and woodwind instruments have to be sanitized quickly between each use.

One of the schools we go to annually is in Nipomo, a very poor (economically) school in a very poor district, mostly children of migrant farm workers. You'd hear Spanish spoken a lot more than English and all the teachers are bilingual. I was asked if some "special-day" children could join the class and I, of course, said yes. During the hands-on period, one little Mexican girl wanted me to help her with the flute. She just couldn't get a note. I tried to get her mouth in the right position but told her that even I had trouble playing the flute because it was one of the hardest instruments to learn. By then I had other children sleeve-tugging so couldn't spend any more time with her. The class ended and I was packing up the instruments. All of a sudden I heard notes coming from a flute. Not just one note but multiple notes. I whirled around to see that same little girl playing the flute. She immediately pulled the flute from her face and said, "Did I do something wrong?" "No", I said. "I was just so surprised because I have never had a student get more than one note out of a flute. That's amazing." She held the flute horizontally in both hands, looked down and said, "This is such a beautiful instrument. I want to learn how to play this." It made my day. It made my whole year!"

June 16, 2010

There was a "pretend meeting" going on when I called John to give him the news about this grant. He thought they were going over next season’s policies and procedures so in attendance were the Symphony’s Executive Director, Brian Hermanson; Symphony Maestro, Mike Nowak; Music Education Coordinator, Andrea Stoner; Marketing Director, Patty Thayer; and volunteer, Jane Swanson as well as other staff members. I heard a huge round of applause when I called and John said he was so stunned, the blood drained from his face!

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I asked John where his love of music came from, and he said he studied piano at the age of four but when he contracted Hodgkins lymphoma (a bone marrow transplant saved his life) he lost the feeling in his left hand and was unable to play, but he has always been a music lover. "After the transplant," he said, "I lost my medical license to fly so I've spent most of my time in volunteer work, especially for the symphony."

"We call him our "Symphony Angel," said Andrea. "He has been a huge asset to the symphony program as a donor and volunteer and was instrumental in helping obtain the van itself. He cares deeply about the mission and the students in the area." Last year as they were setting up at a school in Atascadero, the principal came by to say his daughter heard a demonstration of a bassoon when she was in the 3rd grade. She went straight home and said, "I want to learn to play the bassoon." She is now the second chair bassoonist with a real symphony. (the van didn’t have a bassoon but no matter – she was still inspired)

Jane also told me that when she and John presented in a library in South County, a gentleman came by to say his daughter received a scholarship at UCLA because she played the trumpet. Guess where she saw her first trumpet? It’s stories like this that make this such a valuable program that is clearly changing lives. It’s too bad John’s wife, Becky, couldn’t be there today but she was out of town visiting relatives. After speaking to John, it’s clear he is highly regarded by everyone in the community. They call him their hero and now he is one of ours.

06/16/10: Jenny wrote... "John, as a former musician myself, I know the value of music in children’s education. Who knows? These new instruments might just produce the next Yo-Yo Ma."

06/16/10: Damon wrote... "Congratulations, John! Thanks for helping to bring music directly to the kids. San Luis Obispo is very lucky to have you."

06/16/10: Linda Ashworth wrote... "Way to go, John! Thank you so much for all you do!!"

06/20/10: Patty Thayer wrote... "John, you rock! Thank you so much for all you do and for your devotion to music education. We love you!"

07/14/10: Liz wrote... "As I read your story I envisioned children having to wait in line to play an instrument. It must have been frustrating for both the kids and for you. How nice that they no longer have to wonder why they were left out. It's incredible that you were able to enlist Jenny's help in making so many youngsters happy."