Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Renaissance Woman

That's exactly what Burns Davis was.

Was rather than is.

The Monday before last month's Great Plains Ragtime Society meeting (held 9-25-2011), I'd sent the massage therapist from Lincoln, NE a copy of a flyer touting that September meeting. And it was all about trying to get more Lincolnites interested in traveling those 52 miles to Omaha to check out what GPRS has been doing to help promote old-time piano.

I was eleven days too late.

I received an email from Nan Bostick; she'd written to find out if I'd heard about what happened to Burns.

Opened up the link Nan sent with that email and found out...the unthinkable happened.

Burns Smith Davis passed away on 9-8-2011.

It happened- unexpectedly- at home. (She would've turned 64 on 11-13-2011.)

I found out that Burns wasn't actually her birth name. She was born Bonnie Jill Reimer...and the birth took place in Enid, OK. (The proud parents were Barney J. and Martha Louise Smith Reimer.) Burns went on to take her first and last names from a couple of highly influential piano teachers of hers.

In 1968, Burns received a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Oklahoma...where she went on to, in 1972, earn a master's degree in literary science.

In previous posts, I'd called Burns a Californian-turned-Nebraskan. Actually, she was an Oklahoman-turned-Arkansan-turned-Washingtonian-turned-Californian-turned-Nebraskan. (Fresh out of college, BSD held down library jobs in Fayetteville, AR; Yakima, WA; and Red Bluff, CA. In Yakima, Burns went back to college...and got another master's degree, this time in botany.)

Burns Davis moved from Red Bluff to another California city, Cupertino, where she became a nursing home administrator.

In addition, she became a ragtime enthusiast there...to the point where she became active with a rag group and a local festival.

Her next city was Los Gatos, CA...where she got involved in business consulting and design.

And then, in the middle 1990s, Burns came to Nebraska's capital city; in Lincoln, she joined the State Library Commission. On top of that, she launched Davis Business Systems.

The Star City was the place in which Burns' life reached a real turning point.

In 1998, Burns decided to become a massage therapist...so, she enrolled at the city's Myotherapy Institute.

And that's where people found out that she had The Knack.

Not long after studying at the institute, BSD started her own massage therapy business, Ehaweh Arts. (The firm's name came from one of Burns' great-grandmothers, an Oklahoman known for her own ability to heal.)

Meanwhile, Burns began to land jobs as a substitute organist at a succession of Lincoln churches: St. Mark's Episcopal, St. David's Episcopal, St. Paul's United Methodist, St. Paul's Congregational, and Trinity United Methodist. (At Trinity, Burns served a while as its main organist.)

She even went back to Enid to attend Phillips University...and to intern on the organ at that city's Central Christian Church. The high point was a concert in June 2000.

Five years and one month later, I met Burns Davis for the first time.

And it wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for Gil Lieberknecht.

Gil gave me a list of performers he'd been playing alongside at different ragtime get-togethers nationwide (especially the Sutter Creek outing in his- and Nan's- native California). The list came in handy, because I was trying to find performers for the first annual Ragtime to Riches Festival, then held at a church in Council Bluffs, Broadway United Methodist.

Jim Radloff was on that list, too...and he and Burns answered the call. (So did two other performers I'd competed alongside at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest: Marty Mincer and "Perfessor" Bill Edwards.)

Burns went on to play every last one of the R to R Festivals we've had thus far, from the first (where Gil was the guest of honor) to this year's event (the first held at Omaha's First Central Congregational Church).

She ended up doing the last Sunday concert at every R to R only because her Ehaweh Arts schedule and her work as a church organist in the Star City combined to leave her with the last Sunday concert...but last year and this, Burns got R to R Sunday (at least the afternoon part) off.

In fact, at the 2010 festival, Burns gave a workshop about Gil, the highly-prolific ragtime composer who moved, as a teen, to Nebraska in 1947 (his dad Henry was born here) and died in 2008 at age 76. 

And it was one heck of a workshop! (In fact, Burns' tribute to her old buddy- of "Goldenrod Rag" fame- was the workshop I could only hope to do about the man nicknamed "Gil Lieby.")

Burns' 2010 R to R workshop had the same thing her festival concerts had: A kind of quiet elegance that featured Burns' wit (who else would list CDs as some of her musical instruments?) and great analytical intelligence.

By the way, she was no slouch as a singer. In fact, one of her Ragtime to Riches concerts began with BSD singing and playing "Everybody Rag with Me." (Earlier this year, Burns- a new convert to Judaism- became a cantorial soloist. All of that after membership in the St. Mark's Episcopal choir.)

Massage therapist...librarian...business consultant...instrumentalist...singer...animal lover...ragtime enthusiast...Burns Smith Davis was no slouch as a person.

Burns, I'm glad to have met you.

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