BELLOWS FALLS — A friend texted me last Tuesday: “Did you hear that Ray Massucco died?”
The text came in a couple of hours after his death, small-town global communication at its swiftest.
“That can't be,” I said. “He just posted on Facebook! Not Ray!”
But it was true - and my disbelief of that moment continues.
When someone is so dynamic a force, it is hard to think that one day he simply wouldn't be here any longer.
I doubt that I could think of another person who enjoyed life more than Ray - it seemed like he never stopped celebrating being alive.
There would always be one more place to go, one more project, one more concert, one more friend to help, one more laugh, one more cup of coffee to savor or glass of wine to sip.
One more story to tell, and he had lots of those.
* * *
When I first met Ray, I was a reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer, in my early 20s, and I covered him as he served as judge in small claims court. He was cracking jokes, while at the same time getting to the heart of whatever the little dispute was all about.
Handling these conflicts with humor seemed to disarm the battling parties, and the resolutions were swift and to everyone's agreement. I remember being kind of amazed.
That was one of his many talents: an accepting and non-judgmental approach to conflicts which left both sides feeling like they had been heard, and somehow, they had won. I'm sure this approach helped later in life with his mediation of union contracts for the town - a difficult task indeed.
When I served with him on the library board, as chair he guided us through many rough shoals, always with the goal of doing what was best for the community, and even though he might have been frustrated in private, he kept things light and positive with good results.
Over the years, we became close friends, and I thought of him as a brother. We served on many committees together, organized many little projects, lots of music events, and enjoyed dinners and camping with our spouses and friends.
He was always conjuring up something and enlisting others in his little schemes.
Who could say no?
* * *
Here's one thing about Ray. When something had to be done, he never said “someone ought to.” He just did the task or found the best person to do so. Community service was as important to him as his personal work.
Was there a committee, club, organization, or board that Ray didn't serve on? I don't think so, and most usually he took a leadership role. At the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce, when we nominated him for Person of the Year in 2011, the list of his civic, government, legal, and community involvements was so long we had to edit some out or no one would have gotten their dessert the night of the award.
Yes, he was surprised that night - at least I think so - as it was pretty hard to put one over on him.
I did get him good one April Fool's Day when I told him that I was panicked because I heard that Greg Brown had booked a concert in Walpole the same day that his wife, Iris DeMent, was performing at Roots on the River.
He totally fell for it, and spent an hour trying to track it down. When I fessed up, he laughed and took it in good humor.
“Got me,” he said, and I waited for retribution for several years, but nothing he served up was as effective.
* * *
Ray remembered everyone's birthdays. He used any excuse in the world to order a celebration cake. He told jokes; often, they were naughty, and sometimes he even told funny ones.
He kept the famous Lolik Lisai extra-strength eggnog alive and brought it to our Christmas party every year - a ritual. He had more stories than I can count, but he did often repeat them, so friends have them committed to memory as well.
He enthusiastically embraced everything about life, but his family was his most important treasure - his wife, children, and the object of his utmost affection, his grandson. The future, he said often.
* * *
Here's another thing about Ray. As much as he did publicly, he did so much more privately than most folks ever knew about.
I sent several people to him myself who were in need of legal help but had no money. I know for a fact that he helped them with their conflict and never charged them a dime.
“Just paying it forward,” he said.
At least I think that is what he said - I take liberties in my quoting him because after writing publicity for our music productions over the years, I confess that I sometimes made up his quotes and later told him how brilliant he was in what he said, to which he would laugh.
Often, time was at a premium, and we all did what we needed to do.
* * *
A huge part of my memories of Ray involve our production of the Roots on the River Festival and all the other small and big concerts we produced through Vermont Festivals: big productions, like the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Judy Collins, or Paula Poundstone, or more quiet singer/songwriter events at local restaurants. So many artists, from classical to downright ear-bleeding rock.
After Ray took over the leadership of Roots, there was just a core of us knowing we could make it work and thinking we knew it all because we had volunteered for the event under Charlie Hunter for many years. We did know a lot, but not nearly as much as we thought. (Charlie, you were a hard act to follow and we appreciated all you did before us.)
The first few years were far beyond what I would call a learning experience, but somehow, after mountains of work, putting out fires, and hoping for the best - and enduring an equal measure of (literal) blood, sweat, and tears - we figured it out. The music would begin, all would be well, and any before we knew it, we would be helping the artists pack up to go to their next gig.
The staff at Ray's law office knew that they would be doing many tasks before and after Roots, as did my family - even my grandchildren, who even at a very young age were assigned to play with other kids in the children's tent. The office itself became Festival Center, and all meeting and organizing began and ended there.
* * *
Here's another thing about Ray: He was grateful for anything anyone did for him. He was grateful for everyone who helped us make these music events work.
The kids, even when small, got their staff T-shirts and lanyards and special assignments. He appreciated those who donated anything to make it work: food or gifts, volunteer hours, of course, and anything to support the music.
I remember recalling to his wife Ginny that one particular headliner caused mountains of headaches one year. We were all on edge, we bickered, all kinds of unforeseen unique problems challenged us, and we were all at our wit's end.
“Why are we doing this?” I said, probably barking.
But then the artist took the stage and the music began, and we stopped immediately and listened.
“Ah, that's what it's all about,” Ray said, smiling, eyes twinkling. All tension melted away, and we knew everything was all right because it really was all about the music, and that is what we will remember.
Everything else dissolved.
* * *
When I think about it, this is exactly how Ray would want to leave us: with these memories lingering, with him still enjoying life and each day to its fullest, still active, smiling, planning ahead - that's so important, the planning ahead - and embracing music of all sorts.
The weekend before his death, he and Ginny attended a music festival - FreshGrass in North Adams, Massachusetts - enjoying all it offered, including ice cream for breakfast. After the weekend was over, one of his last posts seems fitting to include here, and I didn't make this one up:
“The music may be over, but the memories never end,” he said.
That's lots of memories for all those whose lives Ray touched.
Good-bye, my friend. I hope to laugh as much as you, sing as much as you, see the best in others, and just enjoy each and every precious moment, with music always playing in the background.