If I’d had Mrs. French for first grade, I might remember my clay turtle differently. I’ll admit that I’ve always been artistically challenged, and my execution of the turtle in clay may have had its deficiencies. But, you know, had Mrs. French been my teacher, I’m pretty sure she’d have said, “I think your clay turtle looks perfect, David. And you know, there are no mistakes in the universe.”
I met Mrs. French for the first time last week. (It’s actually Dr. French now, but she modestly goes by Mrs.) Anyway, Charlotte French just celebrated her birthday, surrounded by family, friends, and a large cake inscribed, “Happy 88th Birthday, Charlotte – There are no mistakes in the universe.” Apparently not just a catch phrase, it has been a longstanding philosophy of life.
Our paths crossed because Charlotte now pretty much heads up the Riverbend Concert Series, the Sunday evening concerts at Sliter Park. And I spent a delightful morning with her learning some of the details. The idea, she told me, originated with the late Elna Darrow, a Bigfork resident whose sense of community has probably never been surpassed. As Charlotte describes the program, “Elna used to manage the concert series all by herself. Now it takes a committee of eight to do it.”
Charlotte pulled out a stack of clippings and programs from past years. “This will be the 31st year of the Riverbend concerts,” she told me. “Johnny Floridis, he started performing for us in 1998 and hasn’t missed a year since.” I noted some other long-timers on the list, including LeftOver Biscuits and the Don Lawrence Orchestra. “Dave Lawrence has taken over now as the director,” she noted, “but Don still plays in the orchestra.” She went on: “And there’ve been some changes in the Bad Larrys. But Jay Aiken is still the lead singer. Have you heard him? Such a sweet voice.” Clearly, Charlotte knows the intimate details of every group she books.
Charlotte raised her four kids in San Diego with her late husband, Dr. Bruce Peachey. She began her teaching career with a first-grade class. Then, after getting her doctorate in education, she taught at San Diego State University. I realized from her demeanor as we spoke that she would have been an excellent teacher. I also realized that, whatever greater effect she might have had on education by teaching teachers to teach, her true love would always remain with her first-grade classes.
“When George and Elna Darrow negotiated the construction of the band shell on county property, everything was done with a handshake,“ she said, drawing me back to the topic of the interview. “There were no contracts. Of course, eventually the county decided that we should pay for the use of the facility, so now we pay $1,500 a year.” Additional expenses include paying the performers (yes, they do get paid), advertising, insurance, and so on. “But in honor of Elna’s intention to keep admission costs low,” she noted, “the fee is still $3 for adults and $1 for kids.” Bigfork businesses sponsor the concerts to help with the costs.
Concerts begin at 7 p.m. every Sunday evening. For schedule and details, see “Riverbend-Concerts-Bigfork” on Facebook. This year, they run from June 30 to Sept. 1. Sliter Park is at the south end of town near the power station. There are a few picnic tables, but bring a blanket or a lawn chair or something to sit on, because the seating area is all grass. And if you think of the minuscule Montana mosquitos as, well mosquitos, you should probably bring some bug spray too. Concerts generally last one to two hours and you’re welcome to bring a picnic to eat before and/or during the concert.
I’m looking forward to the concert series this year, both because there are some really good performers lined up and because I’ll be singing with one of the groups. I’ll have to admit that sometimes, when I’m performing in front of an audience, I get a little nervous worrying that I might screw up. But that’s not going to happen this time. Because now I know that “There are no mistakes in the universe.”
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