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Terry Teachout, longtime theater critic for The Wall Street Journal and all-around culture expert for Commentary magazine, has died. Already, those who knew him are celebrating his life and many accomplishments. I never met him. Nor did I have one of the stimulating conversations about all things arts and culture he seemed to have had with so many, judging by the tributes. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have a profound, deep, and wonderful impact on my life.
When I was serving in Afghanistan in the winter of 2009-2010, I worked the overnight shift in the tactical operations center for my medevac unit. As anyone who knows anything about the war in Afghanistan knows, not a lot happens during the winter there. So I filled up my 12-hour shifts with books and movies and anything else. With my time, I decided to pick up Terry’s (I feel like I was on a first name basis with him, you’ll understand why in a second) biography of Louis Armstrong, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.”
At that point, I had been reading Terry’s writings for a decade or so. Ever since I first picked up a copy of Commentary in the college library, when I was a freshman. I devoured “Pops.” Armstrong’s abiding good humor, warm personality, and, not to be too pretentious, joie de vivre leaped off the page from Terry’s biography. In the long cold nights in Afghanistan, it was sheer pleasure to read about Satchmo.
So I did what anyone would do, I used my military email address to write Terry a fan letter. I knew that when you tell someone you’ve enjoyed their work while you’re deployed, they’ll be grateful, and maybe it will make their day. I figured I might get a sincere “Thank you for your service” email back. What I got was so much more. Literally.
First, he wrote on his blog, About Last Night, a post about how my email was the nicest he’d ever received from a reader. (I sincerely hope someone in later years, especially after the death of his beloved wife, Hilary, has taken that distinction away from me.) Then he wrote back, saying he wanted to send me some Armstrong CDs. Now I had mentioned that his book made me kick myself that I hadn’t loaded up my iPod with Armstrong’s music before I left for deployment, but I had only done so to make kind of a light-hearted almost joke, along the lines of “Argh! deployment is terrible, I don’t even get to listen to jazz all day!”
So I reluctantly gave him my APO address and maybe expected a greatest hits CD, or something like that. Terry sent four CD box sets! The four box sets that any Satchmo fan salivates over! He basically sent me everything there was to listen to by Louis Armstrong.
Terry’s gifts to me
Over the years, these have remained prized possessions of mine. Not just for the wonderful music, but for the profound generosity Terry showed by sending them to me. I always dreamed that he’d come through my town on a book tour, maybe for a new biography he’d written about another great American artist, and I would take my now old copy of “Pops” and see if he would sign it. Then I’d ask him if he remembered the Joe in Afghanistan whom he sent all that wonderful music to.
Terry was a true critic, teaching me so many things I would never have otherwise known or not fully appreciated without him. In this regard: Whit Stillman movies and Stephen Sondheim musicals are up there, and of course the greatest gift he gave me was a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s music. When my wonderful wife and I were deciding what song we wanted our first dance to be at our wedding, I convinced her to do Armstrong’s “La Vie en Rose.” I don’t think that would have been chosen had it not been for Terry.
So although I never got to meet him and thank him in person for his wonderful generosity to me, a more or less total stranger, I will miss him terribly.Published in