by Ellie Einhorn and Shana D. Lebowitz
Two Brandeis alumni, a former Brandeis basketball coach and their creative efforts to benefit children and teens across the globe
John Rinka, center, with former members of a basketball team he coached in Cranbrook, Mich. Rinka coached at Brandeis from 1970 to 1975.
David Gurwitz ’76 still recalls the moment when his athleticism, mathematical logic and then-undiscovered musical talent converged.
An American Studies major and Math minor, 19-year-old Gurwitz was a little intimidated by the idea of taking “Finite Dimensional Vector Spaces.” At some point, he recalls, the professor found that even the most skilled math students were struggling to comprehend the complex second-year calculus material.
Gurwitz laughs as he narrates the short sequence of events he sees now as a sort of revelation. “The professor brought up [the music-math connection] when he saw at some point that everyone in the class-we’d all hit a wall,” he says. “‘Let’s take a break and let me show you that music and math are related,'” he recalls the professor saying.
It was the first time Gurwitz had ever considered the significance of math in music theory. “I couldn’t believe that music was math,” he remembers.
Impatient to test the validity of this new discovery, Gurwitz says he “ran down to the music room” and, ecstatic, began to play, finding that his hands traveled up and down the keyboard with unexpected ease.
“Playing piano,” he realized, “was like dribbling.”
When Gurwitz released his first album, Hear the Children, this year, he focused on the ways he could help children around the world. He was especially moved by physically disabled children and the children injured in the Sichuan earthquake last May.
The album’s debut motivated Gurwitz to reintroduce Terrie Williams ’71, a Brandeis classmate, to John Rinka, a former basketball coach, in light of the fact that both individual’s current careers also center on enhancing the lives of children and adolescents.
Although Gurwitz had kept in contact with each individually since graduating from Brandeis, it had been nearly 40 years since Rinka had heard from Williams.
After a five-year stint as basketball coach, Rinka left Brandeis in 1975 to fulfill his long-standing goal of becoming a teacher.
Now the coordinator of a program for struggling students at a high school in North Carolina, Rinka employs many of the same mentoring skills he used as Gurwitz’s basketball coach four decades ago.
Williams currently operates the public relations and communications firm she established in 1988 after a continued struggle with undiagnosed depression that plagued her initial transition to Brandeis. Since founding her agency, Williams has published several books for adolescents and young adults documenting her journey to success.
Gurwitz’s own success in releasing his first album at age 60 and his interest in helping children speak to his refusal to ignore the talent he first recognized four decades ago in Slosberg Music Center.
Only after Gurwitz uncovered his musical potential did he find out that his mother had once played piano at Carnegie Hall, leading him to believe that it was his genetic fate to become a musician.
Still, he found little time for more than the occasional visit to the music room, instead focusing on a rigorous class schedule, disc jockeying at the radio station, holding down several jobs and playing on the Brandeis basketball team.
Following graduation, Gurwitz pursued his athletic ambitions and traveled to Europe, where he played semiprofessional basketball in Madrid for a year. “They didn’t know how to play basketball then,” he jokes. “I’d pass the ball to them, and they’d kick it back.” Upon returning, he enrolled in Boston College Law School, where he received his J.D., and then business school at New York University, where he earned his M.B.A.
A lawyer responsible for selling research to hedge funds and a father of four in New York, Gurwitz seemed an unlikely target for sudden musical inspiration when, about seven years ago, he was struck by the urge to compose his first song.
“Hear the Children,” the title song of Gurwitz’s first album, was conceived as a tentative melody while Gurwitz was sitting in the park with one of his children, struck by the image of a child in a wheelchair.
But it would be another seven years before the cassette recording of “Hear the Children” became the nine-song album Gurwitz released this year.
Though he can laugh off his insecurities now, when he initially began composing, Gurwitz was uncertain about the value of his music.
“I gave [the tape] to my cousin,” Gurwitz explains. “He said, ‘Don’t think you’re such a big shot! Your mother played better.'”
Still, Gurwitz was not to be dissuaded. Unwilling to lose this second opportunity to fulfill his musical potential, he hired a piano teacher to help him transfer the tentative tunes he heard in his head to notes on a page.
Since launching his music career, Gurwitz has used his melodies to support childrens’ causes internationally. Focusing on the idea of helping physically disabled children that inspired Hear the Children, Gurwitz is planning a benefit concert in Connecticut this Thanksgiving to raise funds for the Special Olympics.
Gurwitz’s music has had an impact on populations in areas such as China and India. “China,” a song on the Hear the Children album, captures the tragedy of the children injured in the Sichuan earthquake last May.
Gurwitz donated some of the proceeds from the song’s sale to the American Red Cross China Relief Fund. Gurwitz’s music will be featured in an upcoming concert in India.
Ironically, Gurwitz’s age and inexperience in the music business further motivated him to compose.
“It’s inspiring to someone older,” he says, reflective. To his peers who say they can’t do anything anymore, Gurwitz invokes his own success and says, “See, you can.”
With his 50-hour work week peddling research plus his obligations as a father and a husband, Gurwitz says it can be challenging to find the time to practice music.
Instead, Gurwitz finds material for songs in his everyday life. “A couple of my songs were generated by walking in traffic,” Gurwitz says, from sounds like the sound of a horn, a truck muffler or someone screaming “Yo!”
Hurried excitement creeping into his tone as he describes his unconventional method of composing, Gurwitz explains, “I’ll pull into a [parking lot] and call my answering machine and hum the song.” Once home, he’ll listen to the recorded melody and pick out the tune on the piano.
Gurwitz’s musical career gives him the satisfaction of touching the lives of children across the globe as well as the invigoration of playing music.
“Kids are just one aspect of it,” he says. “Music makes you feel young, excited.”
While a member of the Brandeis basketball team, Gurwitz established a relationship with his coach that has served as the foundation of a lifelong friendship. The entire team, Gurwitz says, looked to Rinka as a role model and a friend who influenced more than just their athletic lives.
“A basketball coach can tell you things a professor can’t,” Gurwitz says.
Rinka’s tenure coaching Brandeis basketball from 1970 to 1975 marked the “rejuvenation of the basketball program,” Rinka explains. He recalls bonding with a unique group of intellectual students, several of whom he’s still in touch with.
Rinka describes how the team spent significant amounts of time together and grew to appreciate each other as people, not just teammates.
“We’d take long road trips,” Rinka reminisces. “It wasn’t all basketball.”
Soon after he began working at Brandeis, Rinka found that he “didn’t find enough purpose” in coaching. Although he was named an All-American basketball player, inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame and was at the time under consideration for the position of head coach of the Tufts basketball team, Rinka began working toward a master’s degree in teaching from Brandeis.
Today, Rinka uses the same counseling skills he used to lead the Brandeis basketball team more than 30 years ago to help struggling high school students. As the coordinator of the Advancement via Individual Determination program at Hoggard High School in Wilmington, N.C. since 2003, Rinka puts needy students on a path toward a four-year college.
“We look for students who would fall through the cracks,” Rinka explains. This year’s 108 AVID program participants included a student who has been in foster care since the age of four, one whose mother is currently in jail and a student who recently had a baby.
For AVID students, the program’s significance extends beyond academics. “The kids form a really strong bond with each other,” Rinka explains. “It’s a peer group that supports each other in going to college” and whose positive encouragement counteracts the influence of gangs and other negative peer groups.
During the four years that students spend in the program, Rinka plays the roles of teacher, mentor, friend and advocate; he acts as a stable source of support and motivation. “The classroom is open for the kids anytime, even if they want to eat lunch up here,” Rinka explains. “It’s a real unique situation.”
The majority of the participants in the AVID program are minority students, and nearly all face significant economic obstacles to pursuing any form of higher education. But for the four years they spend in AVID, “everything is pointed toward ‘We’re gonna go to college,'” Rinka says.
All students are enrolled in honors courses and juniors and seniors in Advanced Placement classes. Program administrators instruct students on how to sign up for SATs and financial aid and apply to college.
Their academic efforts pay off; out of last year’s 22 AVID graduates, 21 were enrolled in four-year colleges. Several students were awarded athletic or military scholarships.
The former basketball legend has never for a moment doubted his decision to sacrifice the opportunity to be a professional coach in order to become a teacher, echoing the satisfaction Gurwitz and Williams expressed with their current careers.
“It’s amazing to see what these kids can do,” he says, “what they overcame and what they can overcome.”
Williams’ current career as the founder of her public relations firm, The Terrie Williams Agency, is the manifestation of her determination to overcome her battle with depression and fulfill her humanistic objectives.
Even before she arrived at Brandeis, Williams knew she “wanted to save the world.”
“To help people,” Williams explains. “To help develop their inner passion, their voice and help them understand who they are.”
Yet Williams’ tumultuous transition to college proved that it would be some time before even she developed a true understanding of who she was. At the start of her Brandeis career, Williams says she had already been struggling with undiagnosed depression for several years. “During college there were signs of [my depression] that I really hadn’t identified yet, and it worsened in graduate school,” Williams says.
Williams has published several books in which she writes about her own life story and explains the successful business strategies she used in founding her firm; other books highlight the importance of educating American adolescents. Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, published this year, details the story of Williams’ struggle with severe depression and explores the issue of depression among black teens.
Williams encourages current Brandeis students to explore their strengths in order to gain better insight into their own ambitions. “Listen to your inner voice,” she says. “It always tells you the right thing but we are always second-guessing it.”
Each encouraged by the others’ achievements, Gurwitz, Rinka and Williams seek to combine their creative and benevolent inclinations. Rinka intends to distribute copies of Williams’ books to students in the AVID program; Gurwitz plans to play some of the songs from Hear the Children at a concert at Hoggard this fall.
Reflecting on her path from Brandeis to her current career, Williams acknowledges that she made the most of her weaknesses, channeling her difficulties and frustrations into a more proactive means of benefitting society.
“Blessings,” she says, “have a way of disguising themselves.”
Article Posted 9/9/08