To his students, he was the favorite teacher who could make them learn while having fun. To his fellow musicians, he was the virtuoso who never ceased to amaze. To his family, he was the glue that held them together and brought them joy.
Donald V. Heald, the former band director at Dedham Middle School and bass player at Skipjack’s Sunday jazz brunch in Boston, died at age 54 late last month after a long struggle with ALS.
His wake earlier this month, however, was not the first gathering in celebration of his life. The Dedham Middle School community, with the help of Heald’s fellow performers, friends, and family, had organized fund-raisers to help him pay his medical bills.
Before one such event last spring, Heald was bedridden and understood he did not have long to live. But rather than focus on what was to come, he said he felt fortunate to experience the generosity of his many friends.
“Throughout this whole ordeal, the way I have felt is that I just had so much support from so many people who have been so kind and giving,” Heald said at his West Roxbury home. “I feel like I’m being carried through this.”
That attitude was typical of Heald, friends and family members said at the wake. He was able to find something good in any situation.
The third of four children, Donald Heald grew up on Long Island, N.Y., in a house filled with music.
His father played the clarinet and his mother played the trombone. Loud records were always on in the house, and it didn’t take long for Donald to catch on. His mother and aunt saw him standing up in his crib at age 1, shaking his rattle to the music.
He got his first instrument in the fourth grade, a banged-up $25 baritone horn that he carried around in a corduroy case.
“Everyone played something in our house; there was no other choice. It was, ‘What are you going to play?’ ” said his sister Jane, a cellist for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in Indiana.
Among friends growing up, Heald quickly got a reputation as a practical jokester as well as a truly talented musician. Playing in pit orchestras, he would put in huge rubber teeth and place fake mice on music stands, but he always turned in a solid performance.
“Any instrument you gave him, he could play,” said Jerry Cannarozzo, who met Heald while playing in bands on Long Island. He recalled Heald picking up a bassoon for the first time and playing “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
Applying to Hofstra University for music, there were no scholarships available for trombone players, so Heald learned the French horn. Tom Engel, a friend and French horn player, said Heald learned the instrument in three months and was soon playing better than he.
The day Heald moved to the Boston area in 1996, he found musicians Bill and Bo Winiker in the Yellow Pages and asked Bill if there were any jobs available.
It so happened that the brothers were desperate for a trombone player that night for a high- profile gig in Salem, but Bill had never heard of Heald. So he grilled Heald as hard as he could, asking him esoteric questions about the trombone and how to pay it.
“He passed the test,” Winiker said, adding that he was great on stage.
The Winiker brothers invited Heald to become an integral part of their organization. Heald wrote them a business plan and accompanied them on stage as a bass player for their jazz brunches at Skipjack’s in Boston.
“To play alongside of Don, as my brother and I did hundreds of times, it was just pure joy,” Winiker said. “He was a master improviser, which are few and far between.”
While he excelled as a musician, Heald’s true calling was teaching.
“He was truly a Pied Piper to these kids,” Bill Winiker said. “If a kid didn’t have an instrument, he’d get him one, and with Don’s personality, he made those bands unbelievable.”
“His passion was contagious,” Jane Heald added.
When he got sick, those who knew him would say his positive attitude became contagious, as well.
Heald began going to school with one cane, then two. Gradually, he lost his ability to walk, use his arms, and eventually to eat and breathe on his own. After he retired in 2011, the middle school community rallied around him with fund-raisers in November 2011 and June 2012.
The Winikers, Heald’s family, friends, and students performed at those events, with Heald holding back tears as he thanked every person who came up to him.
Even after losing use of his hands, Heald continued to teach. Then eighth-grader Noah Littman visited Heald weekly to receive trombone lessons. Littman’s grandfather Dave Malek came along to prepare Heald a meal, and every so often brought out his harmonica to play along.
As Heald described how he wanted his funeral to be performed, he was still able to add humor to the situation.
“We pretty much get to the end and we’re all really sad, and he says, ‘And please don’t forget to put in my rubber teeth,’ ” Jane Heald said.
Those teeth were placed beside him at the wake.