Sunday, November 30, 2008

You might need a hankerchief when you read this-

Rowe: Mom’s 'B natural’ solace is seeing Dead jammin’

GREENSBORO — Like many ink-stained refugees, I get my share of calls from readers. One of them came from Betty Ruffin. She had a doozie of a request.

She wanted me to help her better understand her son.

Her request came a few months back. She saw my column on the Marcus C. Rizzo Center for Musician Enrichment, a proposed music incubator on South Elm, and she wanted to make a donation in honor of Tommy, her oldest son.

When I asked her why, she told me about Tommy.

He had a big heart. He was a Greensboro native, a tax attorney in Florida who thought nothing of helping disabled children, hurricane victims, single mothers he knew and uninsured musicians he didn’t know.

In one particular case, after hearing a minister on the radio, he helped poor black families, victims of Hurricane Andrew, get money from insurance companies to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Tommy, a single father of two, was named Dade County Citizen of the Year for his work. But he never told anyone in his hometown, including his mom.

Betty heard about it from Tommy’s law partners.

Tommy was like that. He was an unpretentious, intensely private man who never wanted attention. He wanted to right the wrongs of the world.

But at the same time, he was troubled, burdened with depression beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend. Last year, Tommy killed himself. He was 49.

But one thing that gave him peace, away from his world he saw restrictive and suffocating, was music. Or “real music,’’ as he called it. And music from The Grateful Dead made his soul sing.

He discovered The Dead as an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill. Tommy visited every national park and saw every Dead show he could when he covered the country in an old Oldsmobile and a pop-up camper.

His musical adventures with The Dead never waned. He saw them constantly. And somewhere along the way, he gave The Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia some kind of advice. Maybe tax advice.

But like he did with much of his life, he didn’t tell people. They found out about his work with Garcia only after his death, when they found a signed photo in his office.

There was a short thank-you from Garcia, written in gold pen, that included this tidbit: “Life’s short. Don’t B flat. B natural.’’ Garcia signed it in the universal language of music notes.

After Garcia’s death in 1995, Tommy criss-crossed the country to see the remaining band members of The Dead play and see its community.

And every time after every show, he told his mom about it.

Even when Betty visited him in Florida, Tommy would put on something from The Dead and say, “Listen to this, Mom, listen to this!’’

But she never saw the band live. And she never fully understood her son’s connection to The Grateful Dead and its legion of deeply loyal fans who searched for what some called “The Happy Sound.’’

Deadheads. Tommy was one. So was I.

I had followed The Dead since 1985. Just like Tommy. So, I knew the draw. And with Tommy gone, she asked me for help. She wanted to better understand the why of what Tommy loved.

At first, I thought we’d talk over coffee. But when the Greensboro Coliseum Complex booked RatDog, the group fronted by Bob Weir, the former rhythm guitarist of The Grateful Dead, I had a better idea.

We’d go. And we did Sunday night.

I walked Betty — a 75-year-old woman called BeBe by her grandkids — into War Memorial Auditorium, and there, she saw a mass of 1,500 Deadheads turn one big room into one big dance hall.

She got it. At least she told me she did. But she didn’t need to.

I saw it for myself Sunday night, when she clapped, swayed and patted the seat in front of her with every tune she recognized.

She had heard it all before. Somewhere in her son’s life. But Sunday night, she heard it — and saw it — for herself. And she just grinned.

Contact Jeri Rowe at 373-7374 or