My son Colin and two other young men with autism recently participated in a television interview about their love for the piano and the teacher who nurtures that love, Don Estes. Each young man has a different talent for the piano: Colin plays by ear, Josh reads music and Matt composes music. Don recognizes each student’s gift and patiently, lovingly develops it. When Colin learned about the interview, he asked Don: “Will I be a star?” Don told him, “Colin, you are a star.”
The day of the interview Colin, Josh and Matt waited in quiet anticipation for television reporter Fran Riley to arrive at Don’s music studio in his Bettendorf home. Fran has a segment on KWQC TV-6 news called Fran Riley Features that highlights interesting and positive stories in the Quad Cities.
I’ve known Fran for years and respect him as a journalist with integrity and a man of faith who demonstrates the humility and sense of humor of Pope Francis.
Fran and his cameraman treated their subjects with dignity, putting them at ease and reaching out to each one’s comfort zone. Colin played a one-handed version of “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from the Titanic. Josh played two songs, beginning with “Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz. Don performed two songs that Matt composed as the young composer sat beside him. The three young men seemed almost oblivious to the cameraman as he moved in to get footage close up.
Afterwards, the musicians sat down and listened to Fran interview Don, the true “rock star” of this story. Their versatile teacher who plays guitar, banjo, trombone and keyboard explained his teaching techniques. He plays to the strengths of his students with autism so that they can set and achieve goals. They work very hard, Don said, because music gives them great joy. Fran asked Don how he feels after he’s had a lesson with one of his students with autism. Don beamed and said, “I take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow!’”
Each of the young men had an opportunity for a brief interview with Fran. I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing at some of Colin’s comments. How does music make you feel?
“Groovy!” said Colin, who was born long after “groovy” left the lexicon.
Oddly enough, Colin didn’t seem interested in watching the feature, which aired Monday, until he saw a “teaser” that included footage of him, one of Colin’s longtime support staffers said. Then, Colin decided “I think we should stay and watch it.”
Later, I asked Fran to share his impression of Don’s work with Colin, Josh and Matt. Fran described Don as “patient, kind, complimentary. He encourages his students and works with them at their own pace. It’s tremendous that we have a man like Don in our community who reaches out to others like this.”
So how does a story like this one impact Fran’s faith? “There are so many kind, caring people in our community,” Fran said. “During my own life, I have struggled with depression from time to time. Many people I get to interview have taught me that with faith in God, and a determination like that of Colin, Matt and Josh, you can make a positive impact.
“I read the Bible, attend Mass frequently, and have a wonderful wife, Marilyn, who is a terrific, Godly role model for me. I also have a great network of Christian friends who help to uplift and inspire.”
Fran has read articles about autism, but doesn’t consider himself an expert on the subject. He doesn’t have to be an expert, just someone who treats others with the same respect regardless of abilities and disabilities. Fran demonstrated that the moment he walked into Don’s studio and greeted three young musicians with autism.