“The day the music died”
There is less music in the air on Whidbey Island these days. The Island lost one of its most loved voices with the passing of Gordy Adams on August 11. Born Gordon Howard Adams Jr. in 1944, Gordy endured a 10-year journey of declining health as a result of a series of brain tumors. The tumors deprived him of many of his abilities, but did not diminish his love of music or his enthusiasm for living.
Those who knew Gordy only during the long and fruitful period he spent on Whidbey Island may not even know about the rich and abundant life (or lives) he led before he and Kitty moved the family to Heggeness Road in 1975.
Gordy was born in Toledo, Ohio, but moved with his parents and older brother to the Chicago area when he was nine. He soon fell in love with baseball and was Little League Hitter of the Year at age 12. He starred in both baseball and basketball in high school and also pursued his love of music. He played guitar and sang in various groups from junior high on, including his high school glee club.
It was also in high school that Gordy found Kitty, who was the love of his life. Gordy referred to those early years with Kitty as “romantic heaven time.”
Gordy played baseball and sang in pubs at the University of Indiana and then at Illinois Wesleyan. He and Kitty wed a week after his graduation and together pondered Gordy’s possible career options, which included professional baseball and seminary.
“There is healing in the play.”
— Gordy Adams
Deciding instead to join the Peace Corps, they went to Africa, where they taught school in Botswana in 1967 and 1968. They described their experience in Africa as profound and life changing.
Gordy and Kitty returned to Illinois at the end of 1968, where Gordy taught high school economics and P.E. before accepting a corporate job with A.B. Dick, primarily as a supervisor of Manpower Development and Training in association with a government-required Affirmative Action program. The couple’s daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1969 and son, Chris, joined the family in 1970.
The time spent in Africa continued to affect the choices Gordy and Kitty made, and they grew increasingly discontented with life in an affluent Midwestern suburb.
Serendipity had a hand in the couple’s acquisition of an old Volkswagen camper, into which they packed the kids and a few belongings and set out in the summer of 1974 to seek a new way of life and earning a living. The conclusions they reached included growing their own food, raising their kids in a healthy rural area, and living in a beautiful environment among folks who shared similar values.
The family lived in that VW van for four months, crossing the country and visiting friends along the way. One friend recommended Whidbey Island and, once again, serendipity played a role when their car broke down, extending their visit a few days, long enough to fall in love with the Island.
In January of 1975 the family moved to Whidbey. On a cold, wet February day, Kitty and Gordy attended a bee-keeping class in the kitchen of an old farmhouse that, together with five acres of sunny pastureland on Heggeness Road, happened to be for sale. As they sat around the wood stove, they knew they had found their home. They purchased the farm and have called Heggeness Valley home for 40 years.
As any other “rural character” knows, Gordy and Kitty were in for a lot of hard work. They found the physical labor spirit-restoring as the family learned to farm. Vegetables, fruit, chickens, cows, a pig, sheep, and goats were their mentors during this time. In 1977 son Dave, who was born at home during a storm-caused power outage, completed the family. Always a hard-working guy, Gordy labored at odd jobs and then, for 26 years, as a skilled carpenter. He was proud to have exchanged the life of a corporate executive for that of a productive working-class craftsman.
Life was not all work, however. On South Whidbey Gordy found a creative home for his fun-loving nature. With his constant energy, zest for socializing and enthusiasm for bringing people together through music, he was for years the last to leave almost any gathering.
True to their parents’ dream, the three kids grew up healthy and happy, with strong values and a love of the land. Family activities included 4-H, swimming and boating at Deer Lake, fishing and crabbing, weekend hikes and road trips in summer to visit relatives in Colorado. Gordy was never too busy to share his love of sports with his children. Membership in the Langley Methodist Church and demonstrating for peace and environmental issues also shaped the character of every member of the family. Thanks to their parents’ example, all three children have become teachers working to make a difference in the lives of their students. They also reflect their parents’ nurturing style in their devotion to family.
Music was always a passion for Gordy. With a love for all types of music, he was just as happy singing with friends on the back porch or around a campfire as in the Methodist Church choir. He was a Shifty Sailor from 1994 to 2014 and was a founding member of the Rural Characters, where his iconic cowboy hat, harmonica and constant grin always occasioned a foot-stomping cheer as he ambled onstage.
If anything, Gordy’s popularity as a performer on Whidbey only increased after he had to wrestle with one health issue after another. Two Achilles tendon tears slowed his carpentry career in 2000. Malaria struck him in 2004 between trips to Ghana and Botswana. The first brain tumor was surgically removed in 2005, effectively disabling him. Next a serious truck crash in Nebraska broke Gordy’s back and eight ribs in 2007. In 2009 he underwent abdominal surgery to prevent an imminent aneurism. A second brain surgery and subsequent radiation in 2013 slowed but did not end the inexorable growth of the tumors.
Through all of these challenges to his health, Gordy continued to smile and sing and love music. He used to say, “There is healing in the play.” And through it all, with Kitty constantly by his side, Gordy basked in pride for his three children and his six grandchildren, of whom he said, “They are my greatest joy since having my kids.”
In “American Pie,” Don McLean sang, “Something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.” For many who knew him, that day was the day the music of Gordy Adams was stilled.
Sara Benum is a neighbor of the Adams and collaborated with Kitty Adams to write this story of Gordy’s life.
Image at top: photo by Martha McCartney. Other photos were provided by the author.