I was greatly saddened to learn that my old friend and mentor, Tom Standeven had passed on. I received the call from Joe Vesey, the son of Tom’s old friend and musical partner, John Vesey, the great Sligo fiddler.
Tom was always a gentleman piper in the old tradition, even up to the last. The staff at his residence remarked to me on my last visit; “Mr. Standeven is such a gentleman.”
He was also truly a “national treasure” as an awestruck lady once remarked to me. He had a deep and abiding love for and knowledge of the Gaelic language, music, and culture. Tom had many friends and pupils worldwide, and was one of America's senior uilleann pipers.
Many knew him as an uilleann piper and player of the flute, pennywhistle, and accordion, but he was likewise a good fiddler. He also played pipes and instruments from other cultures, including Scotland, Brittany, the Balkans, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
In addition, he was conversant in the languages of these cultures, and knew their poetry and songs as well as the Irish and Scots Gaelic traditional genre. Much was learned both in the United States, and during his journeys overseas.
I recall driving him back to San Francisco one evening. It was on one of his periodic visits. We had been at a grand ceilidh with Sean Folsom. It was about 1 AM on a beautiful moonlit night, and he was discoursing on the poetry of Art MacCobhthaigh, 18th century Irish bard. He said; ”Eisd, a mhic” (“Listen, son.”), and began reciting a poem on the Hall of the O’Neills in Irish, and I remember thinking how strange it was to be hearing this, thousands of miles in space and hundreds of years in time from its own place. But that was Tom. He was thoroughly imbued with the language of Ireland. That language was at the heart of his music. As he often said, the language drives the music.
Tom was always most at home around his friends and fellow Gaels, especially in a kitchen or parlor. His playing was nothing short of marvelous when he was comfortable with a group.
The native Gaels of Ireland and Scotland held him in great regard. That extended to his students as well. Many’s the time when I was in a Gaeltacht or an exiled Gael’s home that the red carpet was laid out when they found out I was one of “Tommy’s lads.” It made my informal collecting of songs, tunes, and stories far easier.
Tom was unfailingly generous and unstinting in his graciousness and hospitality. In addition to his teaching (which he refused to take money for), he obtained loan instruments, books, music, tapes, etc. for students, never charging for his services, often spending money out of pocket to "further the cause." I recall writing from Vietnam or other foreign posts, asking for some Gaelic song or tune, or a pennywhistle, and getting it forthwith.
He would also host us at his home after lessons, offering food and hospitality,
even putting us up if need arose, never allowing a payment. In later
years, we were privileged to be able to reciprocate his hospitality when
Perhaps a biography is in order for those who were not acquainted with Tom.
Tom was born in Philadelphia, PA on December 9th, 1931. He began music studies in school. He enjoyed church choir, especially Gregorian chant and the pipe organ. He also became interested in Greek and Turkish folk music at this time.
At 17, he became acquainted with Irish traditional music. Station WTEL in Philadelphia began broadcasting live musical programs featuring Austin Kelly and his All-Ireland Irish Orchestra. Tom began what became a lifetime of Irish musical and linguistic learning.
In 1949, he began learning the Irish language, later getting instruction from Mickey Carr of Donegal and Frank O' Hagan of Derry beginning about 1951. He earned the "Fainne Oir" (Gold Ring) from Connradh na Gaeilge, signifying fluency in Irish in 1961.
He began lessons on the button accordion from the late Dan Smith of Galway in 1954. In 1957, he began learning fiddle from the late John Vesey, and that Fall, began learning uilleann pipes from Thomas Busby of Fermanagh. His "piping lineage " extends back through Mr. Busby's teacher, the late Michael Carney, to the great "Patsy" Touhey, to Touhey's father and grand-father, and on back over 200 years (See the biography of Touhy in O’Neill’s “Irish Minstrels and Musicians.”). In 1958, he began learning the tin whistle, and later the flute, with help and encouragement from the late Ed Cahill.
In 1963, he began teaching Gaelic and uilleann pipes, first at home, and later at the Commodore John Barry Club (Irish Center) in Germantown, Philadelphia, PA. It was there that I met him.
In 1969, he competed at the Oireachtas (the Irish cultural competition). He won the "Craobh-chorn Eamoinn Ui Cinneide ar son Piobaireachta Uillinne Sinsearachta", (Eamonn Kennedy Award for Senior Uilleann Piping). Tom was the first American born outside of Ireland to win this award. Tom's statement that he was a third generation Philadelphian “wowed” the TV interviewer who had asked where he was from before he emigrated. Martin O Tailtigh, an adjudicator, later told Tom that the tune that "clinched" the award was "An Raibh Tu Ag an gCarraig?" (Were You at the Rock?), a haunting air from Penal Times, learned from the playing of Seamus Ennis.
(This can be heard on the album “John Vesey, Sligo Fiddler.” This important set of archival recordings from Tom’s personal collection has been issued as a tribute to his friend and mentor.)
Tom also served his country honorably in the Air Force, and later as a Customs officer, finishing his tour in Lynden, Washington. His retirement was strongly attended. One of his peers said that he was the most professional officer he had ever known.
He lived in Wilmington, Delaware after his retirement. Tom spent his retirement as he had spent his vacations and free time for years – traveling to see friends both at home and abroad, teaching, and playing Irish music as well as the music of the Middle East, Balkans, and elsewhere. Typically, he made his last trip to Ireland partly to accommodate a new student from Greece who was fascinated with the Irish music and language.
As some of you are aware, Tom became very ill with cancer, but responded well to treatment. On a visit here in April, 2001, he seemed very much improved
However, in July 2001, he was diagnosed with a new cancer. The treatments received afforded him some quality of life, but were unable to reverse the course.
The Celtic community rallied strongly round him in his hour of need. His friends helped care for him at his home until September with a rotating regular series of visitors, keeping him company, shopping, cleanup, etc. The heroic work by Eoghan Ballard, Tom Cahill, Ed Clark, John Donnelly, Lois Kuter, Bill & Joan McKenty, Rick Moraux, Kathy Parks, Mike Talley, and others, was truly awesome. I know I speak for all in thanking them for their kindness and hard work. Despite their selfless help, ultimately he and his family determined that he needed round the clock care, and he entered Foulk Manor, an assisted living center near his home.
People came in from all over the country and Canada to visit him, and the calls and cards came in from around the globe. The night I left, Bill Ochs came in from New York to play a few tunes with us.
The Philadelphia Irish community honored Tom at its Fall ceilidh, dedicating it to him and presenting him with a lovely bronze statuette of Irish musical instruments, and a plaque in Irish honoring his years of work for the music, language, and culture.
I visited him in October. He was weak, but still able to converse in Irish and English, and we played a few tunes as he was able, mostly on the whistle - he was only strong enough to essay the pipes and fiddle once while I was there.
Before I left, we arranged a ceilidh at the manor. The staff kindly donated a room for the purpose. The group consisted of students and friends. The music was powerful, and bucked him up a good bit. His friends threw a bigger ceilidh a few weeks later, with 25 or so in attendance.
Tom passed away on January 1, 2002, after a gallant battle. A viewing was held January 5, 2001 from 10 to 11 a.m., followed by Mass at St. Helena's Church, in Wilmington, Delaware.
The day was cold and windy, and somewhat overcast at times, but the people were warm and hospitable, as one would expect from those who knew and loved Tom.
A large number of people attended despite the short notice. People came in from all over the U.S. and Canada. Those in attendence included many members of Tom's family; his sister Virginia Dolar, brother Joseph and Mrs. Joanne Standeven, nephews Andy, Paul and David Standeven, and niece Debbie Lee, and cousins Paul Standeven, with mother Dorothy and wife Kathleen; Patsy Steinrock with husband, George, and Mary McDonald.
There were also many students and friends including: Jim, Elizabeth (nee Crehan), and Cara Anderson, Dr. Ali Aydin, Gerry Buckley, Dr. and Mrs. Richard Burns,Tom Cahill, Ed Clark, Brid Coyle, Maura Curran, Kevin and Deirdre Dooley, Joe Donnelly, John Donnelly, Jon & Marianne Ferrin, Don Golphen, Dennis Gormley, Robin Hiteshew, Lois Kuter, Roslyn Blyn LaDrew, Bill McEvoy (Comhaltas), Bill and Joan McKenty, Rick Moraux, Bob Mouland, Bill Ochs, Bill and Kathleen Parks, Jeff Rich, Mike Talley, and Joe, James and Charles Vesey, Maureen Gaffney, Nancy Mizak, Siobhan Sannuti, the children of John Vesey, the great Sligo fiddler.
(Some of the attendees were new to me and I regret that I was unable to include all their names – likewise, if I have forgotten any, mea culpa! )
There were Latin hymns, Gregorian chants, and organ music per Tom's request. Tom was attired in his familiar blue suit, with the Foinne Oir on his lapel, and his silver Copeland whistle in his hand, symbolic of his beloved Gaelic language and music.
The plaque and bronze trophy awarded by the Philadelphia Ceilidh Group for his contributions to the Irish language, music, and culture were displayed, as were his Customs Service badge and the U.S. flag (Tom was an Air Force veteran).
The readings and eulogy were conducted by members of Tom's family, and a Gaelic poem was read by Kevin Dooley of Ottawa, Canada. As the casket was taken out, Lois Kuter and Rick Moraux played "Going to Mass Last Sunday" on the uilleann pipes, another of Tom’s favorites. He was interred near his parents in the Philadelphia area. A piper friend, Dell Campbell, played the final farewell at the graveside.
Following the service, a luncheon was hosted by the Standeven family at the Olive Garden Restaurant in Wilmington. Joe Vesey, Tomas Cahill, and other musicians joined in an imprompteau ceilidh there. Again, I am sure Tom would have been pleased.
It would be appropriate to consider some sort of lasting tribute, in the form of a gathering and an award in his name. Tom kept the flame alive for years, in a time when few even in Ireland had much interest in the language, music, and culture.
One of his students, Joan McKenty, wrote words that I think sum up what we all felt. During his illness, I thanked her and the others for the great care they took of Tom. She responded; “I think it's because our friend has been a true hero in this world - we all can't help but admire him and do what we can to help a person of such honor.” After his death, she said; “My sense of loss is tempered by the awe and inspiration I feel for and from this soul Tomas Standeven who walked through our world. There is not a human being that I have admired more.”
Unstinting in his efforts and selfless generosity, he enabled many hundreds over the years to learn, and they in turn have taught many more.
As a lad, I had the pleasure and privilege to know and learn from Tom, John, and the rest, in the now almost extinct oral tradition. They were great men, always helping a learner along. They were always encouraging, patient, and kind.
Before his passing, he ensured that the many valuable instruments, music, and books he had so lovingly collected and cared for over the years would be passed on to good stewards, his loyal friends and pupils, with the admonition that they be played often.
On behalf of the many students who have benefited from his knowledge, willingness to freely share it, and his infinite patience and kindness, go raibh mile mait agat, a charadh mhoir!
I also wish to thank his family for their kindness and hospitality when I was privileged to visit them, especially his sister Virginia. I know I speak for all his students and friends in saying that we deeply share their sense of loss and sorrow. Ar Dheis De go rabh a anam uasail. (At the Right of God be his noble soul.)