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David Lee Bollinger, 1954-2016

Witness Post: David Lee Bollinger

The guy had that way with musical notes: he could play with them on the piano, make them linger a little bit longer, put extra emphasis on a beat. His syncopation let us know that he owned it. From the first time we met him at Cathedral School, David was a musician. The way he walked, slowly, with his own tempo. The way he smiled, with glee. The way he listened, intently.

The musical brain trust at the Catholic School in those years was bi-polar. On one side was the tone-deaf music teacher, Sister Arnold. When the classes drifted toward drudgery, which they always did, David reminded the good nun that he could accompany her, while she waved her hands and urged the cherubs to sing with the beat. On the other side was a musical genius: Robert Twynham, the recently hired musical director and choir master of the Cathedral’s men and boys choir. He was another character all together: deaf in one ear and blind in one eye, Mr. Twynham was a song writer, an organist and a strict task master. Having perfect pitch, Twynham could detect a sour note from a mile away. Unintimidated by Twynham, David said singing for him was “no sweat.” Music was just a matter of pitch, volume and range. David heard things the rest of us missed, as he soared beyond us.

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In 1966 the Cathedral Choir rehearsed with the Old St. Paul’s Choir in downtown Baltimore. Through good fortune and some lucky connections, Mr. Twynham had managed to get  the Cathedral Choir invited as one of two choirs to perform at the wedding of Luci Baines Johnson to Patrick Nugent. Johnson was the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson and the wedding was going to be broadcast on television.

After lots of practice and Social Security reviews, we receive FBI clearances and took the bus to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. David was one of the soprano soloists, so he stood front and center. He mentioned craning his neck for a bird’s-eye-view of the President, the bride, and the pageantry. The wedding was a public affair, drawing 55 million television viewers, and pictures of the wedding were featured on the cover of Life magazine. Our parents told us that dignitaries were asked for comments as they hit the exits. Everett Dirkson, the Senate Minority Leader, said to a reporter as he left the Cathedral, “The choir sounded like angels!”

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The Cathedral Choir boys rehearsed several times a week and practiced with the men on Thursday nights. The evening practices started in the choir room and ended in the loft at the back of the Cathedral, from which the echo of a chord or a laugh lingered for seven seconds. We ended most hymns with a full descant, after which Mr. Twynham would say, “That was good, now let’s do it again.”

David’s father, Michael Bollinger Sr., would be there promptly to pick up his son, before the boys got enmeshed in the weekly rumble on the Cathedral lawn. The choirboys claimed it helped them to “let off steam.” David, sounding like the Kinks, said that he did not participate because he was a lover not a fighter. He wanted to protect his hands. He overcame his penchant for passivity soon enough; in a few years he was ready to roll with his fellow Dons.

The Bollinger’s were a family whose members were exceptionally good with their hands. Michael Bollinger, Sr. founded a roofing company in Baltimore whose business took off with the housing boom of the 1950’s, 60’s and ’70’s. Many of the family members joined their father in the business. David was the eldest child of Michael Bollinger’s the second marriage. Born nine months after his dad married Cecilia Curley, David hypothesized, “I was conceived on my parents’ honeymoon.” He developed the hand skills from his family and Dave would work with wood, paint, words, and notes for the rest of his life.

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In elementary school David was very popular with the girls. He always seemed to have a girlfriend hanging on his arm. He said that he could easily talk with the girls because he was from a large family. As one of 15 kids, he had six sisters on whom to practice, but it may have been because their Lake Avenue home had but one kids bathroom that he became the persuasive, smooth talker that he was. In the Bollinger household those verbal qualities were a necessity, not a luxury.

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David’s older brother, Tim, and younger brother, John, were close in age, so they were always around to give family support. Not that David needed it much. In high school he started dating Liz Russo, who was smart, clever and gorgeous. Her blond hair, perfect hairdo, and cute legs instilled the envy of most of Dave’s classmates. At the Loyola school dances, with the mirror ball swirling colored lights in the Creaghan Library, we could depend on Dave to be there with Liz, suggestively draped over his shoulders for the slow dances. He taught us how to slow dance. Dave had the Beatles hair cut and the Bee Gee’s suits, which made him seem extra cool and sophisticated.

Loyola classmate, Jeff Christ, recalls the dramatic academic and social upheaval in the curriculum that Fr. Murray and the Board implemented in 1969-1970. It made the alumni nervous and several Board members resigned. The situation for coat and tie clad students at Blakefield was another matter. “The campus was more open … the innovation provided us a sense of freedom, and it was wonderful.” Jeff visualizes that the benches outside of Wheeler Hall became private space for a sophomore club.  He claims that David and he were sharp dressers at the time. “Dave got me interested in music (Elton John, of course) and we talked endlessly about the upcoming weekend and our girlfriends … Dave’s dazzling smile, warmth, impish sense of humor and enthusiasm (he had a way of gently clapping his hands as he spoke) were magnetic.” Those club sessions also included scheming to get off campus for food. Their number one destination was Chalet Charles. The craving was for a roast beef on rye, David’s favorite.

David liked the occasional football game and he could mix up the razzle-dazzle, with emphasis on the RAZZLE. The Sunday morning games were held on a make-shift field at St. Mary’s Seminary on Roland Avenue. The usual suspects at the touch/tackle games included Bill Zorzi, Billy Rodgers, Scott Keim, Bill Birmingham, Dailey Kennedy, Scott Dunbar and David. Barbing and laughing after nearly every play, David was clearly in his element. After the games the boys would head down the block to Morgan Millard for an ice cream cone.

Yes, he could keep the beat like a metronome, but he also had an insatiable ear for new artists. Even in the sixth grade he could imitate musicians like the Beatles, Elton John and others from the British revolution. As the year’s passed, he picked up the piano chords so easily, he was the envy of many of his classmates. His singing and piano playing were precursors to his starting of the group, Tumbleweed. When we went on high school retreats to places like Wernersville, PA, David was there to lead us through the latest songs by Steve Winwood, Cat Stevens, Bread and rock musicians from Woodstock.

As David matured he became more than just a cover artist for other bands, he started writing his own words and chords in high school. Scott Dunbar recalls the prophetic lyrics to a song he sang at Steak & Ale in Towson: When I’m without you, nothing seems to go my way … ‘Cause I’ve tried it before and it just doesn’t work out right. After high school, he pursued a solo singing career. He performed at the Carousel Hotel in Ocean City and Four Corner’s Inn in Jacksonville. David met his future wife, Karen Jankowski, while performing at the Carousel Hotel restaurant.

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When asked reflect on his musical career, David talked about a close-call with success he had many years ago. He was approached by an agent to sign a recording contract, so he took the train to New York to visit the record company. He was excited beyond belief as he took the trip. When he arrived at the agency, David was surprised that the music agent was not there. The secretary said that the agent had been busted that day for possession of cocaine. No one else at the agency was familiar with David’s potential contract, so he shuffled back to Baltimore to start all over again. He lamented, “Isn’t it funny how fragile life can be?” In this case, it was the last straw for David’s effort to make the big leagues. Instead he resorted to playing small gigs in the Baltimore area.

Bill Zorzi became the keeper of the David Bollinger archives. He collected over 43 audio tapes of David singing and put them on a CD, which he gave to the family members on David’s 50th birthday. There may be stray tapes with few other Bollinger originals, but they would be in boxes in Nick Bollinger’s basement for discovery at a later time.

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All the while he stayed loyal to his friends at Loyola, even sending his children to the school. Counting David’s three children, Sam, Nick and Max, there are nearly four dozen Bollinger graduates of Loyola Blakefield. Few other families can match those numbers. Max Bollinger, David’s youngest son, was elected his class president, which helped secure a scholarship toward his education. That financial award helped David and his family make ends meet and still have the Bollinger boys as Dons.

Bill Zorzi, a Loyola classmate, captured David’s way with his environment. “He was a very clever guy with words and had an amazing sense of melody. It was odd how he could look at something and figure to fix or figure a way to tout it.”

John Sullivan, another Loyola classmate, re-met David about four years ago. They sat next to each other at a coffee shop in Towson for many days before David let John know they were Loyola classmates. Hanging around mostly with basketball players, John did not know many Don musicians. They both showed up many days a week and worked on computers or cellphones to promote their businesses. Soon Starbuck’s became their wifi office. John got to know David’s slow gait, his rumpled, untucked shirt and khakis, and his ever present Martha’s Vineyard hat. He would drift outside periodically to smoke a cigarette by the alley dumpster.

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One night last July, David was coming out of a store, when he was jumped by a guy who attempted to rob him. The story teller that David is, several versions of the robbery were told to different parties. One story version could be called the ‘Sr. Arnold’ and another  the ‘Mr. Twynham’ version. The stories goes like this:

Sr. Arnold version — “I was walking back from the Giant on York Road with a can of tomatoes, when I got jacked by this guy who jumped me from out of the shadows. The poor fella fled on foot, after I nailed his ass with a can of Muir Glen Organic Crushed Tomatoes ‘n Basil. He’ll not be eating or smooching for sometime, I suspect. I got him full swing, right on the button.”

Mr. Twynham version — “I was walking home after picking up a bottle of whiskey at Well’s Liquors when a guy jumped out of the shadows, grabbed me, and slammed me against the wall. It was a classic fight or flight moment. I reached for the only weapon I had, my bottle, and slammed it into my assailant’s face. After a bit more struggling, the mugger ran off into the night.”

In either case Dave had some serious scars and bruises from the fight. He texted John Sullivan, saying he didn’t think he could go on stage at the Hamilton Tavern that week looking like a bum. Sullivan, the good Irishman that he is, reported, “I texted back asking Dave if he thought the scars and bruises would stop Keith Richards from performing … I was there when Dave played at the Tavern on Friday night and he sounded great.”

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Despite advancing lung cancer, which Bollinger had hidden from his friends, he always had amazing range, control and pitch in his music. Sr. Arnold and Mr. Twynham were looking down on Dave, no doubt.

We will miss hearing his sweet voice and encouraging laugh. We deeply mourn his loss to our Loyola community and the Bollinger Family.