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: 24 min 12 sec ago

Remembering and Celebrating the Extraordinary

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 9:39pm
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 74While 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!

Categories: Citizens

In Remembrance: Dr. Theodore Papermaster, 1914-2014

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 6:22pm
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 . . .


Categories: Citizens

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