I've been struggling with the words to express my grief since I received the news of the passing my friend and colleague, Eric Rombach-Kendall just over a week ago. While I'm still feeling a tremendous sense of loss, I've also been feeling a sense of aimless wandering, like I'm a rudderless ship. Eric was a stabilizing force in my career and life, and I feel like that's been brutally taken from me. The best words I have to explain Eric's impact on me is to share an anecdote, or two, about my relationship with him and what he has done for my career over the years at UNM.
February 2006. I have just moved to Albuquerque from Phoenix to start my new job as Associate Principal/Third Trumpet with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in January. I get a phone call from Eric one afternoon, asking if I'd like to teach at UNM in the fall as an adjunct. Just a couple of students to start. Of course, I said yes. Two days later, I received a call from another University, whose trumpet job opening I had applied for, informing me that I've been invited to a final round interview. I was a bit undecided about what to do. So I called my mentors from ASU, David Hickman and Sam Pilafian. Without hesitation, Sam told me I should "hitch my wagon to Eric Rombach-Kendall. He knows what he's doing!" Dave also felt staying in Albuquerque would likely be a more lucrative option for me at that time, because of the visibility that UNM had in the field due to Eric's recordings with the Wind Symphony on Summit Records. I called the other school and removed my name from consideration and stayed in New Mexico because of Eric Rombach-Kendall.
April 2011. The NMSO has just declared bankruptcy and folded up shop. I'm still adjunct at UNM, but now need to look elsewhere for a job, as my salary at UNM was not a livable wage. I applied for another college teaching position and this time got an offer for the job. UNM was able to counter offer, but not a tenure track job to start. So I had an offer for a tenure track position vs an offer for a full-time position, with the potential for tenure track down the road from UNM. I spoke with Sam Pilafian again, and, once again, received counsel to stay in Albuquerque. "Bet on yourself, because you'll get the tenure gig if you keep doing what you do. Plus, you and Eric are a great team and are just beginning to build something special at UNM" is what Sam said. But I also had a long chat with Eric about it. He told me how much he, and several other faculty at UNM, wanted me to stay. And so, again, I chose to stay in New Mexico with Eric Rombach Kendall. The rest of the story regarding UNM, is, as they say, history. But it was only recently that I found out how much Eric had been working behind the scenes to help make my future at UNM even become a possibility.
I will admit, when I first came to New Mexico, I didn't really believe I would stay all that long. I was going to win a job, either with a bigger orchestra, or at a more high profile teaching institution somewhere else. And in some way, that desire to 'move up in the world,' had continued to stay on my mind until only recently. But the more I got to work with Eric Rombach-Kendall, the more I began to actually believe that UNM was a place that I could stay at and build something special. Just like he did. Eric built one of the BEST university wind band programs in the nation. Period! I'm honored to have been a colleague of his at UNM for the last 15 years. But my fondness for Eric goes beyond just professional accolades. When I look at all the life events I've experienced in NM the last 15 years outside of music: met and married my wife, Brynn, had two incredible kiddos, bought a great house, gained some amazing friends, none of that would have happened if I had left in 2006 or 2011. I gained a life because I stayed. And I owe a large part of it to my friend Eric Rombach-Kendall.
One final story here...March 2020. The world is about to enter the hell of the COVID pandemic. My life has already been turned askew as I had just interviewed for another very high profile college teaching job. I came away from the interview feeling very good about my chances. But I didn't get the job. I was extremely disappointed. Eric was one of the first people to reach out to me to say how sorry he was that I didn't get the job. He explained to me, in his special way of dispensing wisdom, that he understood my disappointment. But, in no way, should I consider staying in NM a failure. He reminded me of all the special things I've done at UNM, all the lives I've touched, all the students I've impacted, and also how happy he was that I would be staying. And while UNM might not be the "pie-in-the-sky" job like the one I had just interviewed for, it was still a place where excellence is regularly attained and that I was a large reason why the program here has it's strong reputation. That is Eric in a nutshell. He is always giving the accolades for his excellence to others. The recordings were excellent because "the students rocked it," or because the:"engineer Clarke Rigsby is the man," or because of "the production team had amazing ears on the project." His concerts were great because "the students worked their tails off." My esteemed colleague at UNM, Dr. Chad Simons, explained Eric perfectly, "It's not that Eric was a mini-nuclear power plant creating massive amounts of light. He saw the light in those he worked with, and used that light, combined with his own, to create beautiful things."
My wanderlust search for a greener pasture is now over. New Mexico is my home. UNM is my home. Eric helped me realize that only recently. However, I think I've known it for much longer than I realize, and that Eric was always trying to help me truly see that I've built a home here in Albuquerque. But the thought now of my home without him around is heart-shattering. I wish, just one more time, that I could tell him what he's meant to me and my family. I wish for one more solo gig with his band. I wish for one more conversation about student successes, Michigan football, favorite recordings, or our respective time in Ann Arbor, MI. Most of all, I wish he was still here to help guide me. Even though the my time at UNM without Eric has come much sooner than anticipated, he has left me with an indelible vision of what I want my studio at UNM to be, what I want my life to be, and what I want my students to walk away from UNM with. So, in a way, I guess he IS here to guide me. Musical excellence with integrity was his message every day. Frankly, there is no message more noble and appropriate in today's music landscape than his.
Rest well, Eric. My heart breaks for your family, Julie, Rebecca and Michael. My heart breaks for your colleagues and friends at UNM. And my heart breaks for the future students at UNM who will never experience your compassion and advocacy for them. I'll never forget you, my friend.