Doug Esse

by Mark Dvorak

Doug Esse was a banjo student of mine a long time ago. He was slight of build, as I remember, and mostly a quiet and reserved man. Doug was a newer member of a close-knit group of banjo students who had been together for more than a year at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He didn’t socialize much with the other members of the class as he always seemed to be busy with work.

Doug also never seemed to make much progress with his banjo playing, even though he swore he practiced on a regular basis. As best as I understand it, he was an archeology professor at the University of Chicago, and it must have been a demanding position. Remarkably, he never got down on himself, which is somewhat inconsistent for a student who struggled in class the way Doug did. When he didn’t understand something, or couldn’t play something, I remember him often shrugging it off with a smile. “I’ll work on it,” he would say.

Doug was in class off and on, I want to say for about a year, maybe less. Towards the end of our time together, he missed an awful lot of classes, and it began to puzzle me why he kept signing up for banjo class when he was already too preoccupied to practice or even attend.

By summertime, I was gone from teaching for the session, traveling with gigs and so forth. When I returned to my teaching schedule in the autumn, Doug was signed up for class, but wasn’t in attendance the first few weeks. Then one afternoon during a break, I was called to the office to take a phone call. It was Doug’s wife calling to tell me that Doug had passed away.

She said he had been diagnosed the year before with stomach cancer and after a long battle, it had finally caught up with him. “You only knew Doug as thin man,” she said. “That’s because he was so sick. He was a big guy.”

She told me how much he loved his classes and his classmates at the Old Town School, even though his illness didn’t permit him to work on his lessons. He was just too tired all the time from the illness, and from the treatment. He looked forward though to getting out of the house once a week to be with his friends in class and strum along as best he could.

She went on. Only the students in the class knew Doug was sick, and their instructions were to cover for him whenever the teacher got curious and began to ask questions. When I did get curious and asked his closest friends in class about him, their reply was always, “Doug is busy on a project at the university.” I never had a clue.

From the moment Doug was diagnosed, there was little hope of recovery. In his remaining time, he decided to do two more things. One was to visit the great pyramids in Egypt, as that was his field of study. He did that twice. The other was to learn the five-string banjo at the Old Town School of Folk Music. To Doug, playing the banjo was a way to celebrate living. 


From the upcoming collection of essays, "31 Winters."

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