Very few “06880” readers ever met Buell Neidlinger. But — thanks to his frequent comments on the blog, always providing nuance and back stories to the topic of the day — many of us knew and admired him.
He lived in Westport from 1938 through the ’50s. He had a long and storied career in music, playing bass with Billy Holliday, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Elton John, Dolly Parton, the Carpenters, the Moody Blues, Barry White, Whitney Houston, Ringo Starr and Bill Monroe.
When he died suddenly of a heart attack in March, at his longtime Washington state home, the “06880” community mourned.
Mary Cookman Schmerker was especially touched. The 1958 Staples High School graduate first got to know Buell when he responded to an “06880” story about the Saugatuck Congregational Church by asking Mary if longtime organist Ella Otis was her grandmother.
Buell was a member of the children’s choir, and remembered Ella.
“I loved the way she would improvise fab modulation sequences between the hymns,” he wrote. “Kinda reminded me of the movie music I heard down at the Fine Arts on Saturday afternoons.
“Anyway, I could tell your grandmother loved music from the way she played. That was my first introduction to that feeling in music, and it made me want to be a musician. I was, and still am in music!”
Buell and Mary exchanged several emails. Once, they spoke briefly by phone.
Buell told Mary that he wished he could revisit his parents’ graves in Evergreen Cemetery. She lives near Houston, but promised Buell she’d take a photo when she got to Westport in the fall. Her mother, brother and grandmother — Ella Otis — are all buried there too.
However, Hurricane Harvey canceled Mary’s trip year.
A couple of weeks ago, she finally made it back to Westport.
“Unfortunately, Buell couldn’t wait for me,” she writes. “He has left us for his eternal home with the Lord.”
But Mary kept her promise. She found his parents’ graves very easily.
Mary wishes she had paced off the distance from Buell’s parents’ graves, to her grandmother’s. They’re very close — just as she felt close to him.
Their paths did not cross in Westport. He was 4 years older. Yet as she read the comments following his death, she learned he grew up in an old house on Clinton Avenue. She lived nearby, on Calumet.
“We would have roamed the same woods, walked the shores of the Saugatuck down to Lees Dam, heard the noise in the summer from Camp Mahackeno, and watched weekend traffic from the bridge over the Merritt Parkway,” she says.
Rereading Buell’s first email, she noted it was sent just over a year ago: June 1, 2017.
“I encourage everyone to ask questions of your elders now while you can,” Mary says. “Share the stories for future generations.
“I am smiling, and thankful to Buell for sharing with me my grandmother’s influence on his life. What a wonderful gesture and gift he has given me, and our children and grandchildren.
“Buell will live on in our hearts. And his music will resonate for a very long time.”