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And the Moon Township Historical Society website:
When I heard that my beloved Milan Opacich had passed away, I couldn't help crying, because we Serbs in America lost a national treasure, a Legacy maker, a unique soul who had a much larger vision of the world than most of us will ever hope to have!
Milan is a person who WILL live on, much longer after all of us have passed away, because of his multiple contributions in documenting American Serb musical history.
His exploits were LEGENDARY. He was a tambura musician, playing all the instruments, but especially the prim. He would make tapes, wherein he recorded all the instruments on different tracks, and sininging harmony with himself! He experimented until he found the results he wanted. He always kept re-inventing himself, each role better than the last!
He was an incredible singer, and always sang "Bela Ruza" for his beloved wife, Roz, in loving tribute to her. But he could also sing the old westerns of "Cool, Clear Water" and "Rosa's Cantina" as well and clear as any of those beloved patriotic Serbian melodies we have all come to have a special section in our hearts.
Besides PLAYING the tamburitza music, Milan was a tambura MAKER, and taught the craft to young and old who came to his studio. His tamburas are owned by some of the most famous of country and western singers! His instruments are on display in Opryland museums along with Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins and their friends. At one time, Milan's tamburas were also on display at the Smithsonian!
John Hancock, one of Milan's students and a retired boilermaker from Griffith, Indiana, suggested that Milan not only taught guitar making, but "he taught life. He imbued his classes with history and culture and had a wonderful work ethic and wanted everyone to fall in love with the craft. It was what he lived for."
He told our Serbian heritage story on the radio, on TV, and at Universities.
Every two months his articles about famous Serbian musician groups would appear in the acclaimed SERB WORLD, USA cultural magazine. He worked to the very end, having two more articles to go in the SERB WORLD, even after his passing!
He wrote a distinguished book called "Tamburitza America," complete with beautiful photos and stories as only he could tell them. He was the ULTIMATE story teller and I anxiously awaited reading his stories first when the magazine came!
He was awarded the highest award our country could bestow upon someone, calling him a NATIONAL TREASURE wherein he received his honor, the National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA, on the steps of the U.S. Library of Congress!
How proud we always were to hear of another huge honor being bestowed upon on Milan, because he DESERVED every one of them! You can read more about his great deeds here and in his obituary.
And I must not forget to mention his love for his Serbian History group at his St. Sava's Merrillville Church and the astonishing displays they created year after year!
I said when I first heard the news about his passing that this was truly a HUGE loss for all of us, indeed, for all of America.
"Farewell, my dear Milan Op-a-chich-i!" (That's what his famous country music singers called him on the radio show!) And how we would laugh together on the phone about this. I would call Milan from the farthest away places in my car, as he kept me company with his CDs & DVDs in my car! Hearing those "All day I faced the barren waste" words come tumbling out, always made me smile, no matter where I was!
Milan (and Roz!) made the world brighter because he (they) made it so.... and they, true Lovebirds, took us all along with them! Dragica Lord said to my FB post: "Amen, Mim. Milan was loved, and made so many, many people happy in his presence!"
Read Milan's Obituary here:
Read more about Milan here and see a few movies he made for the University of Indiana:
Lynn Hadley wrote about Milan in her blog of 2013/01/25 Milan Opacich-The Music Goes On:
"Milan began playing tamburitza when he was eighteen. He decided to try making a better tambura than the one he was playing, an idea he first had when as a child he watched his father make the plywood and rubber band ukulele. An apprenticing tool and die maker at Gary Screw and Bolt Works, Milan, then 23, applied his skills, ingenuity, and determination to make his first tamburitza - a turtleback prima. The instrument, Milan’s first, required a battle with a tenacious Michigan City swamp turtle. Milan and his older brother had to wade into the swamp up to their necks to retrieve it. 'I can’t swim, and on top of that I have a deadly fear of water moccasins!' Milan remarked."
Roz's cousin, Ted Erceg, also gave a Eulogy on Milan's behalf and spoke about Milan's upbringing and childhood.
"Milan was baptized in St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in East Chicago. His father says he was named Milan after his father's time at the Milan Opera House in Italy, where his father worked for several years. I have often wondered in Milan's fine voice echoes his father's time in Milan.
"Milan grew up with his music as a boy, but it wasn't his only interest. He waas born and raised in Gary's tumultrous Midtown area, among hundreds of Serbian families where the Opacichs lived at several addresses. In spite of the national poverty, he recalled a boyhood filled with friends and neighbors, people out on their porches in the evening, and out in the streets during the day. Streets were made for baseball and the alleys for "Kick the Can." The town served as a living lesson in diversity. In this city of European immigrant kids is where Milan grew up familiar with other cultures, including their music. He loved the open-air market and the ice ream venors, the horse-drawn wagons that pulled scrap collectors, and the photographer who snapped pictures of your kids with his goat.
(Editor's note: For us, it was with the photographer's pony and cowboy/cowgirl attire!)
"It was in the ear of the Miramar Ballroom, built by Serbian immigrants who also constructed our first church on 20th Avenue. Milan felt it an honor to have been born on 12th and Madison Street, a few doors down and a few years later from where the great Serbian St. Varnava was born. There may have been an absence of affluence here, but never a shortage of spirit. Milan LOVED the place.
"As an eleven-year-old boy, Milan discovered that his mom had Extra Sensory Perception. He didn't know what that was except that in that era, everybody's Mom had it! Every time he dreamed up his Next Big Idea, his mom had already sensed it and she would head him off at the pass before any damage could result.
"After graduation from Lew Wallace High School, where he starred in track and football, Milan immersed himself in tamburitza music, and at the time, he began his career as a firefighter. It was during his years at the fire station where he developed skills at mastering the craft of the luthier. Over the years, he haught beginers, many of who were not Serbian and repaired instruments for a number of professional musicians. He was on a first-name basis with stars who Nashvilled who relied on their instruments for their livelihood, who came to him for repairs.
"Milan also took an interest in a certain cute Horace Mann High School cheerleader who lived in the Kirk Yard neighborhood, and who was of Serbian descent too. What more can a man ask? Milan and Roz were married at our (old) St. Sava Church in Gary, and soon blessed with Daughter Karin. Their marriage has spanned some sixty years. It was in Mailan's last few months that Roz, he called her Roe ever since her cousin have her that name, stayed with him through long hours day and night, ever at his side, caring for him. Between breaths, he praised her mightily. Without Roz he was nothing. Karin was with him also until the end, encouraging his cheerfully, and smiling through her tears.
"Milan has always taken great pride in the accomplishments of Serbians in America, but especially so of St. Sava Gary Our presence here today in our commemoration of Milan's gift for preserving Serbian culture in every day life. He is the star that refuses to fade in the morning sun, rock solid in his heritage, and that, essentially, is what made him the man he was."
"Most of us know Milan from his playing in the church halls and picnics, at celebrations and good times. We remember the silver haired fellow in front of the microphone singing his heart out, and preserving the Serbian and Orthodox spirit in his music. But we also know him from St. Sava, and in the silence of this chapel, we can hear you clearly from where you are now. No need for microphones and PA systems. We understand your song.
"The 23rd Psalm's last verse whcih tells us that for living a good and useful life, 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.' This is our prayer for you from your friends."
January 21, 2013
Eulogy from Milan and Roz's daughter,
Dr. Karin Opacich, from the University of Illinois:
"We gather here today to bear witness to the extraordinatry life of Milan Opacich. Words cannot express our gratitude to all of you, to the "selo" (village), however dispered, for your support during this difficult time. Although my father's suffering seemed interminable to my mother and me, the scientist in me calculated that it actually represented less than 1% of his magnificent life.
Robert Frost wrote in his poem, The Road Not Taken,
I shall be telling this with a sign
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I---
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
"Ah, nase Milane, the road you chose turned into a lifelong journey that enriched us all!
"My dad often remarked that he couldn't believe that a kid from the "central district of Gary" could have seen what he saw, gone where he went, and achieved what he did. My father loved his life. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, he accepted his fate stating that he wouldn't change a thing about his life. Who among us can really say that?
"As we all know, my father was the penultimate storyteller. He painted vivid pictures of Old Gary---the Depression, the man down the street who survived the Titanic, the family friend who let him play with his ukelele, and the neighbor who took him to revival meetings where he loved the gospel music. I would be remiss if I did not highlight a few of his story.
1. In high school, he formed a group called the Possum Hollow Ramblers in which he played the guitar and sang country songs. Given his love of Nashville, he never quite left the genre.
2. Of course we all know the story of "the turtle" which he and his brother Bob procured from a snake infested swamp to make his first turtleback prima. If you don't know the story, ask the person standing next to you!
3. Many of you will remember your visits to his first shop in the basement of our home on 4044 Polk St. in Gary. It started as a bench on the north wall and eventually took over the entire basement including the wash tubs where our laundry competed with wood soaking to be bent.
4. When I was 8, I received my first dad-made instrument for Christmas, a baritone ukelele. As he gave it to me, he said, "Someday you'll remember me by this." The very next day, he answered a 3 alarm call from No. 2 Fire Station. The roof caved in on him and two of his firemen brothers. They faced eater below, fire above, and smoke, but somehow they miraculousy crawled to safety.
5. We all know that my dad tenaciously supported the establishment of junior tamburitza groups. I remember with fondness when the ship docked in Chicago bearing the dozens of instruments from Jugoslavia for the St. Sava Junior Tamburitzans. The crates were opened in our backyard, instruments unpacked,, and a giant bonfire blazed with packing material to mark the occasion. Every Saturday morning for the next several years was devoted to tamburitza lessons. I retired my prima long ago, but I still smile thinking about my dad's excitement at concert time.
In the ensuing years, my father fought fires, performed with his tamburitiza orchestras, and industriously built instruments. Most of our family vacations entailed visiting guiatr factories or tracking down some ancient luthier. The house was always humming with music and band saws. I especially loved when practices took place in our living room where sometimes, I even got to sing a song with the orchestra before bedtime.
(Baba Mim Note: HOW Milan loved to tell me about when his daughter Karen sang with the orchestra, "Tata, Kupi Mi Auto!" He even made me a recording of it, due to his extreme fatherly pride in his wonderful and talented daughter!)
"As I got older, I, too, benefitted from the fascinating people who came through our doors like Mr. Tilev, the violin maker from Turkey and Lenin Pierut, the classical guitarist from Cuba. When our friends gathered, our eclectic musical evenings often entailed me playing the piano, singers harmonizing including our own diva, Danica Chirich, and Dad improvising on guitar, cello or prima. My mother still marvels that the neighbors never complained!
As life went on, the recognition and accolades began to accumulate. I have to say that my proudest moment occurred in 2004 when my father received the National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA, the highest federal honor bestowed upon Folk and Traditional artists. To see him honored in this way was nothing short of awesome. That whole week of celebration in Washington, DC was magical. When we entered the Library of Congress for an exquisite reception and dinner under the marble rotunda, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. When my father took the podium to tell his story and thank his benefactors, I sat mesmerized by his grace and humility. No ordinary man this Milan Opacich. How did I get so lucky in life's lottery?
Rather than resting on his laurels, Milan launched yet another career teaching his craft. He loved the flow of students that eneded only when he became too ill to carry on. Students signed on for an 8-week session, but many never left, and they became part of his large circle of friends. Two of his proteges were among those who carried him home today, and they are now considered part of our extended family.
Milan was tenacious when it came to his projects. He loved researching articles and promoting causes. He wrote editorials using pseudonyms thinking my mother wouldn't recognize him when they were published---Jovo Licica, Milosh Obilich (and ye Editor remembers fondly many more!) ....really? Among his final quests were the establishment of the St. Sava Historical Society to preserve the cultural heritage which he held so dear; retrieving the Veterans Memorial from the old St. Sava to the new church; and chronicaling the life and times of Andrew Groehsl, the legendary tamburitza player.
So many of you have expressed to us how much you learned from my dad. In 2000, I had the great honor of paying tribute to him when he received a LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT Award from the American Slavic Association in Phoenix, Arizona. At that time, I cited five of the most important lessons I learned from my father. They remain pertinent:
1. There is something to be learned from everyone.
2. There is power in the written word.
3. There is no greater virtue than loyalty.
4. It's only money. (Character is far more valuable than a big bank account.)
5. The greatest happiness comes from emersion in meaningful doing, and he demonstrated that a life of purpose and passion has had a rippling effect.
Lest you think that I am blinded by grief, that I am idealizing the man, let me assure you that he had his flaws and quirks. We had our differences. My dad was feisty and sometimes stubborn and opinionated. That was just a part of his persona and apparently a part of mine. I found myself at the top of his list from time to time, and I'm not talking about the "A" list. Nevertheless, he was loving and generous and honorable. His smile lit up the room and I adored him.
In final tribute to him, permit me to make two additional requests:
1. He loved my mother dearly and would ask your continued support as she reconstructs her life without her husband of 61 years.
2. Finally, whatever he meant to you, or taught you, or gave you, pay it forward. Give that gift to another the same generous spirit.
He made me promise that we would celebrate his life and that is what I intend to do. I loved him dearly. Uvek u mom srcu, always in my heart, Papa, nase Milane. Vjecnaja pamjat.
Dr. Karin Opacich
Univeristy of Illinois