Only days before heading to the Pacific Northwest for a series of meetings, I discovered that the University had no dedicated reserve for the repair, restoration or replacement of thirty pianos housed in the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium. That may not be a big deal for some, but for the growing number of music majors and non-majors who use them, it is. For them the condition of each piano matters, a lot. That inspired me to rectify the situation, and I knew in a “quarter beat” to whom I would turn — Dr. Michael Veverka ’69.
Mike, a recently-retired radiologist, double-majored in physics and mathematics at Saint John’s. Despite a grueling schedule of classes and labs, however, he made time to pursue his love of music. He was both a member of the Men’s Chorus and a piano student of longtime music professor Wim Ibes. Mike was also one of the first non-music majors to prepare and present a piano recital back in the ‘60s. As you can imagine, he spent countless hours in rehearsal, perfecting pieces by Bach, Chopin, Webern and Schumann.
Even as a young student Mike recognized that music nourished him and helped to create an internal balance. The artistic and creative “right-brained” activity of playing piano complemented his logical and analytical “left-brained” study of science and math.
From previous visits with Mike, I knew that music continues to play an important role in his life. He practices on his electronic keyboard daily; he regularly accompanies cantors at a Portland church; and he’s played dual-piano benefits. In line what that, Mike fulfilled a dream when he returned to campus in October 2014 for his 45th class reunion and played a Mozart piano concerto — with a full orchestra.
Armed with this information, I broached the idea to Mike as we drove along the craggy Oregon coast. Would he establish a fund to ensure well-maintained instruments for our piano students? There was a slight but noticeable swerve in the car, but after a moment of reflection Mike agreed to consider it. In less than twenty-four hours he called with some good news.
It wasn’t long before students began to reap the benefit of Mike’s generosity, and Chris Heitzig ’15 is typical of those who are grateful. An economics major who currently serves as a Benedictine Volunteer at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, Chris has played the piano since childhood. Like Mike, Chris appreciates the many ways in which music has enriched his life. “When I work to learn a new piano piece, I am developing the same skills I use in every facet of my life — whether playing sports or pursuing my career,” notes Chris. “I learn how to listen, how to be patient and how to persevere in order of succeed.”
When asked why he decided to establish this endowed fund, Mike’s response was immediate: “Saint John’s instilled in me the precept of giving back.” With the Veverka Family Endowed Piano Fund Mike chose to honor his parents, Joe and Dorothy. “I grew up in a family of nine children, and it was a considerable financial sacrifice for my parents to pay for my education and piano lessons. This is my way of paying tribute to them.”
My experience with Mike has taught me two valuable lessons. First, think twice before asking someone for a gift while he’s at the wheel driving along the craggy Oregon coast. Second, never be surprised by the gracious response of alumni. Like so many of them, Mike has been unstinting in his generosity; and in this particular case, it has been music to our ears.
[In photo: Mike Veverka '69, standing with music professor Axel Theimer.]