My Musical Family - Joy Riggs

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My great-grandfather, Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, right, gives a cornet lesson to my dad, William J. Riggs, near Bemidji, Minnesota, in the early 1940s.
Updated: 22 min 37 sec ago

Ted Talk: the Musical Picnic Surprise Edition

Thu, 10/30/2014 - 2:14pm
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

Categories: Citizens

Writing Retreat in Wisconsin

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 9:42pm
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?!
Categories: Citizens

Writing Accountability Plan – My New Great Idea

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 10:31pm
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 14It 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!

Categories: Citizens

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