By Chuck Cox
The first time I can remember ever hearing Cliburn’s name was the first time I ever stepped foot on the Kilgore College campus. I had done one act play my senior year of high school, and I went to the Texas Shakespeare Festival that summer with some of my friends. The production was in Van Cliburn Auditorium.
After a couple of misfires at getting my college career off the ground, I finally got serious about it in 1990, which was two-and-a-half years after I finished high school. I was interested in journalism, but hadn’t totally settled on going in that direction until I met Bettye Craddock (who is retiring this year), the newspaper adviser at Kilgore College. She helped me decide I wanted to become a sports writer. And, oddly enough, that’s part of the reason I was fortunate enough to meet a legend.
In 1990, the East Texas Oil Museum, which is located on campus, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Cliburn, who grew up in Kilgore, was on hand for the ceremony. And being a writer for the campus newspaper, The Flare, I got to meet the man I had only known as the guy the theater’s named for. I had a lot to learn. And there was also no Internet in those days, kids.
But as a budding journalist, I did some research. I was blown away. At age 23, Cliburn won the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Russia in 1958. The result was Cliburn on the cover of Time magazine, a ticker-tape parade in the Big Apple, and international fame for the young Texan. He spent several years after the victory touring all over the world to adoring crowds.
In 1962, fans in Fort Worth organized the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which is still going on today. I also remember Cliburn playing the national anthem to christen Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Opening Day in 1994.
The thing I remember most about meeting Clibrun was how engaging and polite he was. He treated everybody he talked to like an old friend. Although I know better now as a journalist that to ask for an autograph, I got Cliburn’s autograph on my program from the ceremony. It was something I always treasured. And while I never saw Cliburn perform, I can always say I shook his hand.