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Old-time local musician dies at 73

Carl Rovainen, left, of Brookings, and George Layton, of Crescent City, Boon Dock Band founders, perform at an outdoor festival. “Carl never met a stranger,” said Layton. “He was very encouraging, always welcoming, no matter what a person’s skill level was. He just wanted to bring music to the world.”
Carl Rovainen, left, of Brookings, and George Layton, of Crescent City, Boon Dock Band founders, perform at an outdoor festival. “Carl never met a stranger,” said Layton. “He was very encouraging, always welcoming, no matter what a person’s skill level was. He just wanted to bring music to the world.” Submitted
Carl Rovainen was co-founder of Boon Dock Band

Usually seen with a banjo in his hands, Carl Rovainen helped bring people in Crescent City and Brookings together through music for more than a decade.

The tall, slender, bespectacled, talented multi-instrumentalist always had a smile and a song to share with others. And when the Brookings resident wasn’t singing and playing his “old-time” music at public events and care facilities up and down the coast, he was delighting audiences with his acting on community theater stages.

Rovainen died March 1 after being diagnosed with incurable cancer in January. He was 73.

For the last decade, it seemed he was everywhere. 

Nearly every day of the week he could be found with a handful of local musicians playing music for residents of any one of the dozen care facilities in Brookings and Crescent City. 

Part of a loosely-knit group of musicians called the Boon Dock Band, Rovainen could be found entertaining the masses at local festivals, art walks, fundraisers and other public events that called for live music. He played music for children in local schools and served as a volunteer music teacher.

Whether he was singing, playing banjo, fiddle, accordion or acting on stage, his enthusiasm and encouragement influenced many lives.

“I always felt good when I was around him,” said Tom Jones, vice president of the Chetco Pelican Players community theater in Brookings. “He made my heart swell a bit and was a better person for it.”

Rovainen’s last public appearance was Jan. 29, when he attended a party in his honor featuring 60-plus people who sang and played acoustic “old-time” music. A 20-minute highlight video of the party is available at http://youtu.be/LetA
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.

“It was a last minute sort of thing,” said Sharon Downs, who played music with Carl for the last seven years.

“We knew what the diagnosis was by then and we wanted to do something for him,” she said. “As unassuming as he is, he didn’t really want do it, but said OK because his son was visiting and was going to be there.”

At one point during the party, Brookings resident Christina Olsen asked the guests to raise their hands if Carl had influenced their lives in some way.

The room was a sea of raised hands, Downs said.

“There was joy in everything Carl did,” she said. 

Close to his heart, she said, was playing music with a group of musicians at care facilities in Brookings and Crescent City.

“He did 12 visits in one week,” Downs said. 

Rovainen and his wife, Leslie, moved to Brookings in 2001 after he retired from teaching and doing research as a full professor — emeritus — from Washington University in St. Louis. Many of his friends didn’t know he had a Ph.D. in physiology from Harvard University. 

While living in Missouri some 20 years ago, he had taken up the banjo and was soon involved in various singalong events.

Upon moving to Brookings, Rovainen met Crescent City resident and autoharp player George Layton — both fans of old-time music.

Layton recalled the first time he met Rovainen:

“I was at this accordion club meeting at the old SWOOC building (in Brookings), and in walks Carl with a banjo strapped to his chest. I knew this was a guy worth knowing.”

The pair started a Sunday night music jam session at a church in Crescent City that is still going on today.

Regulars of the Sunday night jams formed the Boon Dock Band, which received regular invitations to play their old time music at public activities and events in Crescent City and Brookings.

The two men began to organize additional singalongs, called hootenannies, in both cities. 

The Brookings hootenanny has been happening one Saturday a month at the Chetco Activity Center since 2004. Each event usually attracts 15 to 30 people.

The hootenannies are free and open to anybody, regardless of musical abilities, and often serve as the first opportunity for a person to sing or play an instrument — even if it’s just a tambourine or maracas. The group is led by the more experienced musicians.

“Carl never met a stranger,” Layton said. “He treated everyone like a friend. He was very encouraging, always welcoming, no matter what a person’s skill level was. He just wanted to bring music to the world.”

Both Layton and Downs said they will continue the Boon Dock Band, the hootenannies and performances at various care facilities.

Rovainen was also a longtime member of the Oregon Old Time Fiddlers, and was responsible for getting the group to play in Brookings several times. The group will dedicate it’s next meeting, March 30 in Bandon, to Carl’s memory.

Performing in local theater was another love of Rovainen’s. He took bit parts and supporting roles in plays presented by the Chetco Pelican Players and the Brookings Harbor Community Theater. 

Crescent City’s Michael Mavris, one of the first musicians Carl met upon moving to Brookings, said, “Carl’s love for others seemed boundless and was clearly recognized and reciprocated by those who came in contact with him.  This is evident by the effusive outpouring of deep emotions and persistent offers to help by so many in both the Curry and Del Norte communities when his terminal condition became known.” 

Mavris, a physician, said it’s common for terminal patients to focus on what is most meaningful in their lives.

“So what did Carl do when faced with ‘the chilling hand of Death’”? What he’d always been doing: devoting his remaining time selflessly to others, playing for hours at convalescent hospitals, rest homes, senior centers, and other venues,” Mavris said.

“In so many ways he has set an example for all of us.” 

 


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