Altruism Prill’s real legacy
I’ve been attending summer band concerts in Central Park since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Some of my best childhood memories are of coming to the concerts with my grandparents, John and Ava Topping. My grandpa would putt around the square in his green Plymouth Valliant, usually parking on the east side of the square facing the bandstand.
Her joints crippled with arthritis, Grandma couldn’t walk far so she stayed in the front seat and watched and listened from there. Sometimes Grandpa and I stayed in the car with her, particularly if Grandpa had stopped at the Dairy Bar first and bought us ice cream. Other times, we got out of the car and sat in lawn chairs, close enough that Grandma could still converse with us. The very best nights were when a church or service organization made and sold homemade ice cream.
Homemade ice cream at an outdoor concert, fireflies dancing at dusk and my grandparents doting on me – even some 40 years later, there are few things sweeter.
When they played the National Anthem at the end of every concert, it was my Grandpa Topping who always said, “Be respectful and put your hand over your heart.” Even as a young child, I understood the importance of the act. I never horsed around during the anthem (although controlling myself was always a challenge), and I still put my hand over my heart when it’s played today – although I notice fewer and fewer people do.
Even though rain drove the concert inside the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts, I was too busy taking pictures to have pie or ice cream, and though my grandparents passed several years ago, last night’s final summer concert of the 2013 series was almost as pleasing as the concerts of old.
I was almost washed away by nostalgia when the bandstand in Central Park was dedicated to and named after my friend, Ron Prill.
Ron’s been making music in Fairfield for more than 65 years. He joined the Army National Guard and began playing in the 34th Army Band in 1948. He was 16 years old.
In 1955, Ron married his wife Betty. He lost her to cancer in 2001, and I think he’d tell you that although he’s carried on, he lost a big part of himself then, too. Life after Betty wasn’t the same for many of us.
A year after Ron and Betty were married, the late Dillon Lowell recruited Ron to teach instrumental music in the Fairfield Community School District. His first post as an educator was in what is now the Pence Elementary Building. He later moved to the Fairfield High School. He was still the band director there when I graduated in 1987. That was the year that when the 34th Army Band could no longer play concerts in the park, Ron stepped up and organized the Fairfield Municipal Band.
The municipal band played for the dedication ceremony Tuesday night; it marked the close of their 27th summer concert season.
Ron was promoted to Commander/Conductor of the 34th Army Band in 1972, a position he held for 20 years until his retirement in 1992. He retired from teaching that same year.
He’s given this community 65 years of music. I know I speak for many when I say Fairfield is a richer place because of Ron.
It would be impossible to guess how many fireflies have been caught or how many ice cream cones have been devoured while the band played on. How many grandparents have bounced their grandkids on the knees to the beat of a march directed by Ron? How many grandfathers have stood under a shade tree in Central Park at the close of one of those concerts, whispering quietly to their granddaughters and grandsons at the start of the National Anthem, “Be respectful and put your hand over your heart.” How many grandchildren, recognizing for the first time the importance of the gesture, have complied – in spite of a desire to continue twirling in the grass?
There are some things that simply can’t be counted. How do you measure joy? How do you size up sentiment? How do you quantify pride of place?
If the number of people who show up on a rainy Tuesday evening to watch the mayor honor you by naming the bandstand in Central Park after you or the length of the standing ovation you receive when you step forward to accept the award are any indication, the accounting is clear.
Ron Prill has generated heaping gobs of joy. He has instilled in us a pride in our city that could only be paralleled by Fairfield’s most revered founding and contributing fathers.
There came a point a decade or so ago when I realized my life just wasn’t working. I was miserable, and I knew I had to do something different or I would drown in my despair. I began to carefully study the lives of people I saw as happy, respected and accomplished. Ron and Betty Prill were among those whose lives I examined. What, I wanted to know, was the secret to these people’s success? There was a common thread that connected them all: they all had committed themselves to the service of others.
In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your county can do for you; ask what you can do for your county.
Ron was 29 years old when President Kennedy said those now legendary words, and he was listening.
“I think my dad took that to heart and applied it to his life,” Ron’s daughter Linda Mench told me. “He really asked himself, ‘How can I serve my country?’ He went about doing it, and then he inspired others.”
Col. Todd Jacobus, one of five men who spoke on Ron’s behalf at Tuesday’s dedication ceremony, said Prill is an example of how one person can make an incredible difference.
“I look at him and think, ‘How can we all be a little bit like him?” Jacobus said.
Anyone who grew up in Iowa has known the simple pleasure of tossing pebbles in a pond. The pebble makes a single entry into the water, but the ripples of the impact are sometimes countless and very far reaching.
What would Fairfield look like if we were all a little more like Ron? What distant shores might be influenced by the ripples of a single, local act of benevolence?
At the end of President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address he said, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
Ron Prill understood that; he has lived it and as we saw Tuesday night, history already has judged him favorably.
Like his late wife Betty, Ron’s altruism is his real legacy, and long after the music fades, the self-sacrifice of the leader of the band will be remembered by the community he called his own.
– Staci Ann Wilson Wright lives and teaches in Fairfield. She is a summer Ledger staff writer.