In the end, the violin turned out to be worth almost nothing.
Yet along the way, it revealed treasures that cannot be measured in dollars — selflessness, generosity, human kindness, the wisdom of age and the promise of youth.
The story begins with the Noblemen.
They are a group of older men, of 65 to 84 years. They number 47. They are black military veterans who entered the service of their country in the early days of the racially integrated American armed forces. Fathers and grandfathers, most of them retired from the Air Force in the 1970s, since retired from second careers.
They live in metropolitan Omaha, many in Sarpy County. They formed their group about a decade ago for fellowship. They took their name from the regal-sounding name of a late co-founder, Noble Oxford.
They meet monthly at Offutt Air Force Base. They pray. They eat. They talk.
They also act. A dozen or so Noblemen regularly volunteer at Howard Kennedy Elementary School. Kids at the school, on Omaha's North 30th Street, come from neighborhoods marked by chronic poverty.
Several in the group also serve as Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, volunteers. Judges appoint them to get to know abused or neglected children and their court cases well enough to speak for the children in court and to help coordinate services.
Every Wednesday morning during the school year, 10 Noblemen greet Kennedy children as they arrive at school. They give the children high fives, handshakes and smiles. They share a few kind words with those who look like they could use them. And they deny no hugs to kids who want one.
After lending a hand at the door, the Noblemen stay at the school and lend an ear: Students work on their reading skills by reading out loud to the men.
The Noblemen chose Kennedy because they figured there were a lot of children there who may have difficult home lives and who could benefit from a kind word from men like the Noblemen.
“We see something in them that they can't necessarily see themselves,” said 77-year-old Edward Medlin, co-founder of the Noblemen. “We try to minister to it, for the few minutes that we have with them.”
In recent years, the Noblemen have donated something to the school annually. One year, it was a nice globe. Another year, computer accessories.
“Whatever we can do to be the most helpful,” Medlin said.
This year, Kennedy Principal Phyllis Brooks asked the men to help address a good problem.
“A lot of the kids were getting interested in string instruments,” Medlin said. “The music department needed some violins.”
The number of Kennedy students signed up for teacher Mary Rasmussen's violin and viola class had quadrupled — from six to 24 — in the last four years. Brooks is a big believer in the power of music education to keep kids in school, to help them in other subjects and potentially to open doors to travel and even scholarships.
Rasmussen is right there with her.
“They never miss school on a day they have strings,” she said. “If they're there, they're learning something.”
The Omaha Public Schools provide instruments to the school, but this year they didn't have enough. Brooks asked the Noblemen for help.
“We said we would get five violins,” Medlin said.
The Noblemen pitched in and purchased five new, school-quality instruments at $85 each. Harold Davis, a member of the group whose granddaughter is an award-winning young violinist, came up with a viola.
The Noblemen who also are CASA volunteers sent out a request for used instruments to colleagues in that program. A Sarpy County CASA volunteer named Dick Winter dug behind the old coats in a closet and brought out a violin that hadn't been played in at least a half-century. His late wife's ancestors had played the fiddle at long-ago Iowa barn dances. But it had been tucked in the closet since 1961.
That made seven instruments. The principal had asked, and the Noblemen had answered. Rasmussen was floored.
“How can it be,” she said, “that they have such a close relationship with the school, where the principal can get on the phone and say we need violins, and two weeks later, we have not one but seven?
“My jaw was on the floor.”
When the children saw the violins, they literally jumped up and down with excitement.
For every student, there was an instrument, which they play on at school and take home for practice.
The old violin from Dick Winter's closet was a bonus. Rasmussen was intrigued.
Though its orange-varnished wood showed wear, the violin looked like it should produce beautiful sounds. Rasmussen drew a bow across the strings. A string broke. She replaced it. She tightened the bow.
Again, she drew it across the strings. Again, they sang sour notes.
Rasmussen so wanted to be able to elicit the sweet sounds she believed lay latent in the antique-looking instrument. She thought her students would love to play music on such a violin.
She also wondered if it could be worth real money. Antique violins can fetch fancy prices. This one had a label that read “Stradivarius” — named for Antonio Stradivari, who made violins in the 17th and 18th centuries that are the most highly prized in the world. They sell for millions. This couldn't be a real one. Still … who hasn't seen an “Antique Roadshow” episode in which one woman's junk turned out to be another woman's treasure?
Rasmussen took the violin to an Omaha shop, A. Cavallo. She paid $35 for a verbal appraisal. She was told the violin was “patterned” after a Stradivarius but wasn't made by Stradivari. It was made in Germany in the early 1900s.
The violin had suffered a number of poorly done repairs. But if restored, it might be worth as much as $2,500 to $5,000, Rasmussen was told.
She was excited. Then she did some Web research on one of the two bows that came with the violin. The bow was labeled “Tourte,” presumably for famous bowmaker Francois Tourte. A Tourte bow — made with gold and tortoise shell — had sold for $182,000 at a Christie's auction in April. There was no gold or tortoise shell on the bow in Omaha, but it was labeled Tourte.
This was a place where the story could have turned. An acquaintance suggested to Rasmussen that hey, the donors didn't know anything about the violin's potential worth, and teachers don't make much money, and would she have to tell them? She banished the thought.
Not only would that have been dishonest, but how could she have faced the Noblemen?
She told Medlin what she had learned at the violin shop.
“Ha, HA!” he said. “That changed the dynamics of the situation quite a bit.”
Medlin was intrigued, not only by the potential money, but by the instrument's history. What would be the best way to use the violin? They could sell it and use the money to buy lots of instruments for the Kennedy kids. Or maybe, once authenticated, the violin and bow could be exhibited somewhere, their story used to educate and inspire people.
Here, again, the story could have taken a wrong turn.
“We said, 'Here's an ethical problem,'” Medlin said. “A gentleman gives us a violin. He has no idea of its value. We give it to the school. The school music teacher discovers its value. The teacher tells us its value. That transfers the ethical obligation to us. We would be remiss if we did not notify the gentleman.”
Harold Davis, the Nobleman with the connection to violin donor Dick Winter, called him with the update: That violin and bow could be worth a lot of money.
“Just for a second, dollar signs were crossing my eyes,” said Winter, a retired school psychologist. “Then I thought, I gave it for a good purpose. It's already given.”
That's what he told the Noblemen.
They had another dilemma: What to do next. Brooks, the Kennedy principal, put that decision in their hands. The violin had been given to the Noblemen to benefit the school. They should be trusted to decide the best way to do that.
Medlin and fellow Nobleman William Hayes, friends for 56 years, took the violin to A. Cavallo for a formal written appraisal. The World-Herald went along and paid the requested amount, $40, on top of what Rasmussen had paid for the verbal appraisal.
The news was not good. The appraisal was $1,000 for insurance replacement purposes. But the instrument might have no resale value because of the bad repairs, and it would cost nearly $1,700 to restore the violin, probably greater than any potential sale price, Medlin and Hayes were told.
The bows, they were told, were worth nothing. The “Tourte” label was meaningless, a stamp routinely placed on ordinary bows.
One would think this would have been deflating news. But Medlin and Hayes took it in stride. Maybe the violin still could serve a good purpose for the schoolchildren. The men would see what the group thought.
Meanwhile, back at Kennedy, the unfolding story of the old violin added some extra energy to Rasmussen's music classes. Also, the school's holiday program was approaching, and her students were preparing to travel to classrooms to play “Jingle Bells” for their schoolmates. She needed them to focus.
“OK, in 30 seconds we're going to play, get ready!” Rasmussen told the girls and boys on an early December afternoon.
“Can I have some rosin please?” a student asked. “I can't play without rosin!”
“Can you tune mine?” another student asked.
The bow rosined, the violin tuned, Rasmussen stood at a piano. “One-two, ready-go,” she said. She fingered the melody to “Jingle Bells,” and the students played along, like the beginners they are.
Fourth-grader J'Den Lewis, 9, was particularly tuned in, holding the bow just right, furrowing his brow in concentration, standing straight even though there was a wall to lean on a few feet behind him.
Asked why he took the violin class, J'Den said, “It looked pretty fun, and I just like it. Just the way it sounds, and I guess that's it.”
Fifth-grader Catera Parker, 10, said she enjoys trying different instruments.
“I like to try stuff, doing something you want to do that you've never done before,” she said.
Therein lies the value of what the Noblemen try to support at the school.
“Things they never thought they would do, they find themselves doing,” Medlin said. “Things they didn't appreciate, they appreciate.”
That's the music-to-the-ears that they hoped to amplify with the old violin.
On Dec. 12, after their regular Wednesday greeting session at Kennedy School, Hayes, Davis and fellow Noblemen June Matthews, Ron Gaspar, Gus Shoffner, Ted Brown, Frank Barbour, Bob Cooper and James Reese gathered around an oval table with Principal Brooks and Mary Rasmussen, the music teacher. Medlin and other regulars Caldwell Anthony and Russell Hobson couldn't make it.
They delegated Rasmussen to obtain one more opinion, from Chris Nielsen, owner of Nielsen Violin Shop in downtown Omaha. He agreed to examine the instrument for no charge.
On Dec. 14, she laid the case on his counter. He opened it and lifted out the violin.
“Ooo ... oh boy,” Nielsen said, when he turned the violin over and saw that nails — a big no-no — had been used to repair a broken part, and that a crack had been clumsily glued together.
Rasmussen maintained a not-quite-hopeful smile as Nielsen shined a flashlight into the instrument, then gave it a thorough look-over. He exhaled.
“This has one of those Stradivarius labels,” Nielsen said. “It's a copy. German-made, factory-made, probably in the early 1900s. They sold these though, unfortunately, in the Sears catalog, for anywhere from $1.95 to $22.45. It's an inexpensive student violin.”
He has seen hundreds of its type. With repairs, he said, it might be worth $200 or $300, but the repairs would cost more than that. The bows wouldn't sell for anything, but the one labeled “Tourte” should work just fine.
“Usually we tell people to just play these as they are,” Nielsen said. “This would be fine for a student who can take a full-sized violin. You might consider putting new strings on it; otherwise, I wouldn't put much other work into it. ... Sorry I don't have better news for you, but it's OK for a kid.”
Rasmussen thanked him. Out on the sidewalk, she said, “I'm disappointed, because I wanted to get more instruments for the kiddos out of this baby. Maybe we'll just play this baby.”
On Dec. 18, all 24 children in the Kennedy strings class crowded the stage for the school's holiday program. The girls wore dresses. The boys wore ties. Mrs. Brooks, the principal, wore a big, beaming smile as she introduced the Noblemen, who sat in the front row.
She announced that they had donated violins so that anybody who wants to be in strings could be in strings.
The children played “Jingle Bells” and, appropriately, “Ode to Joy.”
The crowd gave them a standing ovation.
While the last note of the old violin musical drama is yet to be played, the epilogue already is forming in Edward Medlin's mind. It's an ending that leaves him with a smile.
If the fiddle isn't worth a nickel, the Noblemen and the teacher and the principal still helped the children, enjoyed the adventure and learned something about themselves and each other.
“What gets me about this whole thing is Mrs. Rasmussen didn't have to tell me but she did,” Medlin said. “That tells me something about her. We had to turn around and do the same thing, or what would that say about us? Then Mr. Winter says it's okay, that once you've given a gift, it remains a gift.”
All along the way, Medlin said, people have decided to do the right thing, for the right reasons.
“We'll do what we were going to do anyway,” he said. “If you have an opportunity in front of you, do as much as you can.”
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