Usually seen with a banjo in his hands, Brookings’ Carl Rovainen helped bring the community together through music for more than a decade.
The tall, slender, bespectacled, talented multi-instrumentalist always had a smile and a song to share with others. And when he wasn’t singing and playing his “old-time” music at public events and care facilities, he was delighting audiences with his acting on community theater stages.
Carl died March 1 after being diagnosed with incurable cancer in January. He was 73.
Dozens of his friends, fellow musicians and actors have been in contact with Carl’s wife, Leslie, in the weeks leading up to his death.
Upon his death, Leslie sent out the following email:
“Kind, generous, encouraging, creative, intelligent, talented Carl died peacefully at home. ...” she wrote.
“He had particularly rejoiced in making music in public for the last eleven years and will be sorely missed. As you know, he had embraced life with enthusiasm!
“Thank you very much for your caring messages, prayers and offers of assistance. We had appreciated them. Hospice care had been prompt and effective as Carl’s needs changed.”
For the last decade, it seemed that Carl was everywhere.
On nearly every day of the week he could be found with a handful of local musicians playing music for residents of any one of the dozen care facilities in Brookings and Crescent City.
Part of a loosely-knit group of musicians called the Boon Dock Band, Carl could be found entertaining the masses at local festivals, art walks, fundraisers and other public events that called for live music. He played music for children in local schools and served as a volunteer music teacher. He wouldn’t accept a dime for his efforts, often donating any compensation to the organization he was helping.
“It’s a very satisfying experience,” Carl told the Pilot in 2009, explaining why he did all those things. “If you’re going to volunteer, this is one of the most fun things you can do.”
Whether he was singing, playing banjo, fiddle, accordion or acting on stage, his enthusiasm and encouragement influenced many lives.
“I always felt good when I was around him,” said Tom Jones, vice president of the Chetco Pelican Players community theater. “He made my heart swell a bit and was a better person for it.”
Brookings actor and musician Lon Goddard was prepared for Carl’s death, but regretted not having one last chance to talk to him before he died.
“Like many others, he started me on the town’s magical music path when I rolled back (into Brookings) for the second time around at the turn of the century,” Goddard said. “We had at least 12 years working and playing with and around one another. With his cheering music, his acting spark, his ever- resilient and complimentary nature, and his total support of the arts, Carl was evident everywhere.”
He added, “I’d have paid good money to hear him say a bad word about anybody, but he would have just given it back and told me to go learn to play the banjo. Maybe someday I will.”
Lynn Guild, who helped coordinate Brookings Second Art Walk Limericists for several years said Carl “was a man who symbolized everything good about small town living. He was talented, incredibly intelligent, generous with his time, trustworthy, and kind.”
Guild said he was a vital member of the Limericists, “writing and delivering fun — and always informative — five-line insights on any topic.”
“The best thing about Carl was that, when he was in the room, I felt welcome, safe, included. And happy,” she said.
Carl’s last public appearance was Jan. 29, when he attended a party in his honor featuring 60-plus people who sang and played acoustic “old-time” music. A 20-minute highlight video of the party is available at http://youtu.be/LetAJetRziw.
“It was a last minute sort of thing,” said Sharon Downs, who played music with Carl for the last seven years.
“We knew what the diagnosis was by then and we wanted to do something for him,” she said. “As unassuming as he is, he didn’t really want do it, but said OK because his son was visiting and was going to be there.”
At one point during the party, Brookings resident Christina Olsen asked the guests to raise their hands if Carl had influenced their lives in some way.
The room was a sea of raised hands, Downs said.
“There was joy in everything Carl did,” she said.
Close to Carl’s heart, she said, was playing music with a group of musicians at care facilities in Brookings and Crescent City.
“He did 12 visits in one week,” Downs said.
Carl and Leslie moved to Brookings in 2001 after he retired from teaching and doing research as a full professor — emeritus — from Washington University in St. Louis. Many of Carl’s friends didn’t know he had a Ph.D. in physiology from Harvard University.
While living in Missouri some 20 years ago, Carl had taken up the banjo and was soon involved in various singalong events. People would gather in a circle and follow the words and chords in the song book “Rise Up Singing.” Each person in the group would take turns choosing a song to sing, and the musicians would follow along.
Upon moving to Brookings, Carl met Crescent City resident and autoharp player George Layton — both fans of old-time music.
Layton recalled the first time he met Carl:
“I was at this accordion club meeting at the old SWOOC building (in Brookings), and in walks Carl with a banjo strapped to his chest. I knew this was a guy worth knowing.”
The pair started a Sunday night music jam session at a church in Crescent City that is still going on today.
Regulars of the Sunday night jams formed the Boon Dock Band, which received regular invitations to play their old time music at public activities and events in Crescent City and Brookings.
The two men began to organize additional singalongs, called hootenannies, in both cities.
The Brookings hootenanny has been happening one Saturday a month at the Chetco Activity Center since 2004. Each event usually attracts 15 to 30 people.
Carl often credited Leslie, who organized and promoted the hootenannies.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Carl said in a recent Pilot story about the hootenannies. “We have a nice variety of instruments, voices and songs.”
The hootenannies are free and open to anybody, regardless of musical abilities, and often serve as the first opportunity for a person to sing or play an instrument — even if it’s just a tambourine or maracas. The group is led by the more experienced musicians.
“Too shy and insecure to sing, (a friend) brought me along to join Carl and the Boon Dock Band entertaining at Good Samaritan Hospital,” recalled Brookings resident Trish Cabral “Before I left, I was singing with the group! That was three years ago. And thanks to Carl’s warm welcome and encouragement I have been singing ever since. I am grateful for his friendship and enjoyment of life.”
Layton said, “Carl never met a stranger. He treated everyone like a friend. He was very encouraging, always welcoming, no matter what a person’s skill level was. He just wanted to bring music to the world.”
Both Layton and Downs said they will continue the Boon Dock Band, the hootenannies and performances at various care facilities.
Carl was also a longtime member of the Oregon Old Time Fiddlers, and was responsible for getting the group to play in Brookings several times. The group will dedicate it’s next meeting, March 30 in Bandon, to Carl’s memory.
Performing in local theater was another love of Carl’s. He took bit parts and supporting roles in plays presented by the Chetco Pelican Players and the Brookings Harbor Community Theater. Leslie often worked behind the scenes.
The plays included “My Fair Lady,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Diary of Anne Frank,” a “Cole Porter Revue, and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“Carl was a delightful and gentle person. I loved acting with him,” said former Brookings resident and Chetco Pelican Players actor April Gothard. “He was kind and just so easy to be around. He will be deeply missed.”
Crescent City’s Michael Mavris, one of the first musicians Carl met upon moving to Brookings, said, “Carl’s love for others seemed boundless and was clearly recognized and reciprocated by those who came in contact with him. This is evident by the effusive outpouring of deep emotions and persistent offers to help by so many in both the Curry and Del Norte communities when his terminal condition became known.”
Mavris, a physician, said it’s common for terminal patients to focus on what is most meaningful in their lives.
“So what did Carl do when faced with ‘the chilling hand of Death’”? What he’d always been doing: devoting his remaining time selflessly to others, playing for hours at convalescent hospitals, rest homes, senior centers, and other venues,” he said.
“In so many ways he has set an example for all of us.”