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, band director at Dedham Middle School for 11 years and bass player at Skipjack’s Sunday jazz brunch in Boston, succumbed to ALS late in January after a long struggle with the disease at age 54.
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, which Heald was able to attend.
“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 in May 2012, before one such event. “I feel like I’m being carried through this.”
Bedridden at the time, Heald understood he didn’t 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.
That attitude was typical of Heald, friends and family members said at the wake. He was able to find something good in any situation.
“Music has been in my family forever.” –Donald Heald
The third of four children, Donald Heald grew up in Levittown on Long Island, N.Y, in a house filled with music.
His father played the clarinet and his mother played the trombone. Loud LPs were always on in the house, and it didn’t take long for baby Donald to catch on. His mother and aunt saw him standing up in his crib ate age 1 shaking his rattle in rhythm with the music.
His first instrument was banged up $25 baritone horn he got in the fourth grade, which he used to carry 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 sister Jane Heald, a cellist for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in Indiana.
Brother Fred Heald added that in the schools they went to, a couple of the greatest and most memorable teachers were music and band teachers.
Among friends growing up, Heald quickly got a reputation as a practical jokester as well as a truly talented musician. In pit orchestra gigs, 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 playing in bands on Long Island. He recalled Heald picking up a bassoon for the first time and playing Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
Applying for Hofstra University for music, there were no scholarships available for trombone players, so Heald learned the less popular 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.
“It’s this whole communication without saying a word. You play music and are having these moments you can’t describe to anybody. That’s why music is so important.” –Donald Heald
The day Heald moved to the Boston area in 1996, he found Bill and Bo Winiker randomly in the Yellow Pages and asked Bill if there were any upcoming gigs he could get involved in.
It so happened that the brothers were desperate for a trombone player that night for a high profile gig in Salem, but Bill Winiker had never heard of Heald. So Winiker grilled Heald as hard as he could, asking him esoteric questions about the trombone and how it should be played.
“He passed the test,” Wikinker said, adding that he was great on stage that evening. “On the way home I laughed like hell that I had given him such a hard time.”
The Winiker brothers, recently profiled as performers for 50 years in the Boston area, 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 Skipjacks 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.”
“Sixth graders are still kind of babies; they’re still afraid of you and timid. Seventh graders get really wacky and loopy. Eighth graders get cool and quieter. But you can put them all together in a band setting and it works out somehow.” –Donald Heald
While he excelled as a musician, Heald’s true calling came in the form of teaching.
Following a year at Wrentham Public Schools, Heald got the band director job at Dedham Middle School, which he held for 11 years until disease forced him to retire.
“If you went into the first sixth grade band rehearsal and then went in on the last day, you would not believe what he could do just in the span of one year,” said John Rocha, an 11th grader who had three years of band under Heald.
Students recalled Heald’s jokes and stories, but also were amazed at their own improvement as they progressed through middle school band.
“I feel like he really changed my life in a positive way; if I wasn’t playing music, I don’t know what I would be doing,” said eighth grader John Williams, who had Heald in sixth grade. “I want to be a musician and I wouldn’t know that unless I had met him.”
Heald made numerous improvements to the Dedham Middle School music program during his time as band director. He began a strings program, which led to being able to present a full orchestra. Many of the band’s standard performances were established by Heald.
Heald was grateful to the school administration, which always came through on his wish list for instruments, including timpani and xylophones. When he walked into his new music room when the new Dedham Middle School was completed in 2006, he said he was impressed.
Bill Winiker and Donald’s sister Jane said he had true talent as a music teacher.
“He was truly a Pied Piper to these kids,” 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.
“It happened pretty fast, and I remember thinking to myself ‘Am I going to make it through the Christmas concert?’ I got through it OK and just kept going and wound up staying to the end of the year.” –Donald Heald
What started as a sore calf led quickly to more serious concerns. At first, doctors thought he might have Lyme disease, and ran through a number of other illnesses before determining that Heald had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Heald began going to school with a cane, then he had two canes. Students helped him open doors and Heald became impressed with such simple acts of kindness.
The disease is degenerative, meaning that Heald gradually lost his ability to walk, use his arms, and eventually eat and breathe.
He was able to complete the 2010-2011 school year and the Dedham Middle School community quickly rallied around him following his retirement. The first fund-raiser for Heald took place at Moseley’s on the Charles in November 2011. The second was in June 2012 at the Endicott Estate.
The Winikers, Heald’s family, and his friends and students all performed at those events, with Heald holding back tears as he thanked each and every person who came up to him.
Heald’s West Roxbury home became filled with guests who brought him meals. A great lover of food, Heald would recommend nearby restaurants he had been to for his guests and have them describe what they ordered, his brother Fred recalled.
As Heald’s condition worsened, his sister Jane said she felt sad looking at his paralyzed hands that he had used to make so much beautiful music.
But he still continued to teach. Then eighth-grader Noah Littman visited Heald weekly to receive trombone lessons. Littman’s grandfather, Dave Malek, came along to make Heald a meal, and every so often brought out his harmonica to play along.
“I have this feeling inside me that it’s going to be OK, it’s going to be alright, so whatever that means, I’m not sure, but that’s just the way I feel.” –Donald Heald
Heald’s niece Paula Heald said the rest of the family depended on Donald as they were going through losing him.
“He was always making sure everyone else was OK instead of himself,” she said.
As he described how he wanted his funeral to be performed, he was still able to add humor to the difficult 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.
The last time many of his friends remembered seeing him, he fooled one of them by having a nurse place a fake leg under his sheets and having that friend pull on it.
In sadness, but mainly in joy, those who knew Heald said goodbye to their family member, friend, teacher, and fellow musician, but with the knowledge that his legacy would live on.
The annual jazz performance night at Dedham Middle School will now be named for him.