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Virtuoso: Kilgore's Van Cliburn dies at 78

By Angela Ward award@news-journal.com
Feb. 27, 2013 at 11 p.m.


Van Cliburn, the internationally celebrated pianist who grew up in Kilgore, died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth. He was 78.

Cliburn's triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition helped thaw the Cold War and launched a spectacular career that made him the rare classical musician to enjoy rock star status. His death was the result of bone cancer, said publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.

Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin said Cliburn's death was a blow to the city.

"It was a great source of pride for our community that he considered Kilgore his hometown," Spradlin said. "He was just a wonderful, humble person."

Cliburn was born to Harvey Lavan Cliburn and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn in Louisiana, but moved to Kilgore as a child and graduated from Kilgore High School in 1951. He briefly attended Kilgore College, then graduated from the Juilliard School and won the Leventritt Foundation Award, which included a New York Philharmonic debut, in 1954.

Despite all his achievements, Spradlin recalled what surprised him most about Cliburn the first time they met was the size of the pianist's hands.

"The basketball coach at Kilgore High School had wanted him to play basketball, because his hands were so huge, but his mother wouldn't allow it because of the risk of damage to his fingers," Spradlin said.

Kilgore College has benefited greatly from its relationship with Cliburn, said college President Bill Holda.

"Van Cliburn is among the most distinguished alumni of Kilgore College," he said. "He was a once-in-a-lifetime musician who in many ways was bigger than life. Whether on the musical stage or the international political stage, he was a signature individual."

He called "warm" the long relationship between Cliburn and the college, whose performing arts center includes the Van Cliburn Auditorium.

Cliburn donated a grand piano to Kilgore College and established several scholarships for music students there, Holda said.

The college also was the site, in the early 1990s, of Cliburn's first solo recital in more than 10 years.

Cliburn skyrocketed to fame in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23. He triumphantly returned to a New York City ticker tape parade - the first for a classical musician - and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

In the years that followed, Cliburn's popularity soared. His recording of the Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" with Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.

Jeanne Johnson, chairwoman of the department of music and dance at Kilgore College, said Cliburn was a friend and benefactor to the department for many years.

"He not only exemplified highest musicianship, he was also the finest of men," Johnson said. "He served as a great example for our students that you can make it in the arts even if you come from a small town."

Cliburn performed for royalty, heads of state in Europe, Asia and South America, and for every U.S. president since Harry Truman.

He also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition.

Created by a group of Fort Worth teachers and residents in 1962, the competition conducted every four years remains a preeminent showcase for the world's top pianists. An amateur contest was added in 1999.

"It is a forum for young artists to celebrate the great works of the piano literature and an opportunity to expose their talents to a wide-ranging international audience," Cliburn said during the 10th competition in 1997.

The 14th competition is to be held in May and June.

Henderson resident Jimmy Culp, who played the organ at First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore for many years, became acquainted with Cliburn when they were introduced by mutual friends in the 1980s. But Culp had been a fan for many years before their meeting.

"I first heard him play when I was a teenager in the 1950s and was just blown away," Culp said. "Many years later he was attending a wedding where I was playing the organ, and we became friends."

Culp said he didn't mind playing a similar instrument in front of the world-famous Cliburn.

"He never made me feel nervous," Culp said. "He was very gracious and just a wonderful person. I'll miss him."

President George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the nation's highest civilian honor - in 2003. In 2004, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama awarded Cliburn a National Medal of Arts in 2011.

Annette Morgan said she had known Cliburn since she was 5 years old. He and his parents were family friends.

"He was a great Christian, a great musician, a great American and a great Texan," Morgan said. "It was an honor and a thrill to call him a friend; once he became someone's friend, he was a friend for life."

<em>- The Associated Press contributed to this report.</em>

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