I first heard Van Cliburn live in 1969. He played a concert at Austin's Municipal Auditorium, a barn of a place, to a sold-out audience. I was, in the vernacular of the time, blown away.
As soon as the concert was over, I rushed down from my balcony seat to wait in the long line of well wishers for my opportunity to have my program autographed. By this time, Mr. Cliburn had actually come down into the audience. He was, in a sense, a man of the people.
When I finally got to the head of the line, Mr. Cliburn gave me not only his autograph, but also his broad Texas smile. I thanked him profusely, then looked around at his entourage to discover LBJ (yes the former President Lyndon B. Johnson!) amidst Mr. Cliburn's crowd and a host of secret service agents as well.
I boldly asked the President for his autograph. He took the program and scrawled his initials, LBJ, alongside Mr. Cliburn's signature! Although at that time I was no big fan of President Johnson, I still treasured the memento and the memory.
In 2003 I produced a program featuring the story of how Van Cliburn came to win the coveted Tchaikovsky competition, the event which propelled Mr. Cliburn into the role of American hero.
Van Cliburn passed away this morning, February 27. The world is a poorer place today for the loss of this musician and gentleman.