There are certain people who enter your life and leave an indelible impact. For countless kids and adults in Tyler, Texas, Arnold Sherman is one of those people.
I was around 7 years when I first met Arnold, the Director of Music at Pollard United Methodist Church in Tyler, Texas. He led us in children’s choir, and on top of teaching us how to gently bang on orff instruments or learn the fundamentals of solfege (if you don’t know these terms, it’s probably too late for you), Arnold began teaching us the fundamentals of life.
As kids, we adored Arnold. He corralled scores of wiggly little Methodists into sitting still and making music together. We learned harmonies, how to blend chorally, how to take a piece of music and rather than just singing it note for note, how to put your soul into singing it. He made it so fun that we couldn’t wait to be dropped off at choir practice on Sunday afternoons. Year in and year out, Arnold taught us music, but he also taught us to be thoughtful humans. As a Christian church musician, he led by example, teaching us the values of treating others with respect, serving others, and helping those in need. He taught us collaboration. He cracked corny jokes and told great stories. During rehearsals, he was sometimes a perfectionist and we rolled our little eyes at him. But he was teaching us that quality work means hard work.
When handbells entered the scene, it was a game-changer. Soon, Pollard had multiple handbell groups with Arnold at the helm, directing the music, mentoring other directors, and building a world-class handbell program. If you’ve never played handbells before, there’s no way to explain the sheer joy of what it feels like when it all comes together. And if you’ve never played handbells before, there’s no way to explain the sheer misery when it doesn’t. Together, wearing gloves to protect the expensive instruments, standing somewhat still at two rows of tables during practice, we put aside all of our different and often strong personalities and for an hour each week, we became one. After rehearsal, Arnold would have us “circle up” to pray. During those circles, the big stuff often came out. Family problems. Stress about grades. Dramatic teen angst. Together, we shared the celebrations and the hard times, and Arnold was there to support and guide us.
When we became teens, Arnold stuck with us. He conjured up the idea of extensive road trips where we traveled across the states on handbell/choir tours. His investment in us during our teen years earned him karma points for life. Arnold meticulously planned the trips ahead of time, and budgeted down to the exact penny we were allocated for meals at fast food joints on the road. We traveled in two 15 passenger vans with trailers to carry our gear, drawing names every day to mix up the seating. Armed with pillows and Sony cassette Walkmen and a few brave and honorable chaperones, we spent a few weeks of our teen summers crossing the country, taking hose showers in church parking lots, spending the night on sleeping bags on church floors, or upgrading to beds in the homes of countless Methodist hosts. We were a huge touring band of raging teenage hormones, and Arnold managed to lead us on these trips without a single nervous breakdown.
In the summer of 1988, we took the vans to California to play handbells for an international convention. The chaperones on that trip also earned karma points for life, because just thinking about driving a van of teens to the movies much less California makes me break out in hives.
The California trip was one of the most memorable trips of my youth. As we drove through the vast desert, I listened to hours of Depeche Mode on repeat on my Sony Walkman, pondering the Big Questions of Life. We sang acapella harmonies together. We fought over who got the window seats. We talked to the other van on the CB radios (this was before cell phones if you can even imagine that), conjured up terrific pranks, and laughed until we cried.
My dad had always stopped at state lines for photo ops on our road trips, so I persuaded Arnold to let us stop for pictures of state line signs along the way, and I’m so glad he obliged. And it doesn’t look dangerous at all! I love that Arnold’s in the back row, both hands up, probably audibly praying that we don’t get hit by an oncoming car, or yelling his classic line, “Listen up, gang!” Perhaps more dangerous than gathering this many teens on the side of the road for a photo was the amount of 80’s hair product baking in the 112 degree California heat. Yet somehow, we survived.
When we arrived at the convention in Los Angeles, Arnold was a star. He’d always been a star to us, but I’m not sure we realized his notoriety in the handbell world – perhaps we took that for granted. Together, with some hundreds of other handbell players, we played the theme to the Olympics. Again, if you’ve never played handbells, you can’t understand what it feels like when it comes together. It was essentially the United Nations of Handbells, and it makes me understand things like Comic Con: there’s something to say for large groups of people coming together with a common interest. It’s pretty amazing.
On the same trip, we had the unique and luxurious opportunity to stay in a hotel before our group trip to Disneyland. That night, my roommates and I stayed up late giggling, almost too excited to sleep.
That was the last day of my childhood.
Early in the morning when it was still dark, I woke up to Arnold patting my arm awake. The light in the room was on and I was disoriented at first. Arnold had tears in his eyes. He gave me a minute to wake up.
As I struggled to make sense of what was happening, Arnold told me that my grandmother Mabel had died. From there, it’s a blur. I packed. I got dressed. My memory fails a bit here, but I think our youth minister drove me to the airport. I got on a plane, where I cried on the shoulder of a stranger — a woman with wretched breath who gave me a Kleenex.
I will never forget that Arnold was there for me during my entire childhood, and that he gently ushered me into the first phase of being a “grown-up.” I will never be able to adequately thank him for that. Now that I’m around the age Arnold was when he had to deliver that news to me, I realize it must have been one of the hardest things he’s had to do while helping raise other people’s children. I know that through the years Arnold had other difficult conversations with the kids in our group, and that he always handled those situations like a family member because to all of us, he was family. To all of us who grew up with Arnold in our life, he will always be family.
Arnold’s nuclear family was created when he married Judy, the love of his life, and when he became a second father to her two girls, Wendy and Ashley. I’ve always thought that Arnold’s investment in other people’s children is what made him such a fantastic father to Wendy and Ashley, and now, such a fantastic grandfather to his grandchildren.
Recently the Tyler newspaper recognized Arnold for his extraordinary contribution to handbell music composition. It’s simply wonderful to see his contributions noted in such a way, as it will help spread the word about his massive impact on the world of music. Those who have worked directly with Arnold, or played his music, or simply respect and recognize his name (the article aptly describes him as “The Johann Sebastian Bach of handbells”) are blessed individuals. Those of us who grew up with him – better yet, because of him – are blessed beyond description.