Audience Engagement, Inspirational Stories, Music for Social Change

Sustain: How One Family Kept A Young Musician’s Spirit Alive After His Tragic Death


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By Jason M. Rubin

Guitar picks are a dime a dozen. Actually, they can be about $200-350 for 1,000 when ordered from a custom online retailer. The point is, they are inherently disposable. Guitarists toss them into crowds all the time; the life expectancy of a pick can be about one song.

Life expectancy. Three score and 10 years used to be a rule of thumb; everything after that was gravy. But these days people expect to live longer. Unless they don’t. James Peter Obremski didn’t. On Thursday, July 29, 2010, James died from suicide in his Evanston, Illinois, apartment. He was a student in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. He was 22 years old.

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James Peter Obremski

James was a good student and a talented musician who began piano lessons at age five and later taught himself to play guitar, ukulele, and banjo. He could also play harpsichord but guitar and piano were his main instruments. As a high school student at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Massachusetts, he was a member of the Drama Guild and a men’s choir that toured Europe.

At Northwestern University, he studied film, literature, and political science, but was a fixture at the campus radio station WNUR, where he hosted two radio shows and served as the programming director for a time. As full as he was with promise, he also had an ample supply of fear and pain; his suicide note, though expressing regret for the hurt he would be causing his family, was calmly and clearly stated with no doubts, only resolve. He ended it, “I’ll leave you now, with ten thousand good mornings and good nights.”

Something to take with them

“The first year you’re in shock, in disbelief,” says Kimberly Obremski, James’ mother. “The second year you’re able to think about it more clearly.” Though she managed to perform the song “Sweet Baby James” at the funeral (there is musical and theatrical talent throughout the family), Kimberly was too overwhelmed with grief to plan much else. Her brother, Christopher Shailor, and her son, Michael Obremski, stepped in to help.

“Kimberly said she wanted people who came to the memorial service to have something to take with them,” says Christopher. “Not a prayer card or anything like that, but something they could have to make them think of James. Since the service was focused on music, I thought of a pick.”

Christopher contacted Steve Clayton Custom Picks (www.claytoncustom.com/us). Regular turnaround time was four to eight weeks. The picks were needed right away. When Christopher explained the situation, the order was rushed and shipped overnight. The pick was designed by Michael and Christopher, with James’ initials on one side and “8,069” – the number of days that James lived – on the other side.

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JPO = James Peter Obremski; 8,069 = the number of days he lived. 

The picks were placed in a large bowl at the memorial service for attendees to take with them. But then the picks began to take on a life of their own.

Spreading the picks, spreading the love

If you’re ever at the Trevi Fountain in Italy, Christ’s Tomb in Jerusalem, Nelson Mandela’s garden in Africa, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, look around. Somewhere in a crack, you just might find a JPO pick.

“Wherever we’ve been, wherever we go, we leave some behind,” says Kimberly. “Maybe someone will find it and not know what it means, but they’ll pick it up and keep it. It spreads his spirit and it’s been a huge healing thing for me and all his friends. Those picks have really helped me through this, I don’t know where I’d be without them.”

“The idea of leaving them places and playing with them was a separate thing from the original purpose at the memorial service,” adds Christopher. “Any musician I play with gets one, or I’ll leave some on the bandstand for other musicians to find. I crossed paths with a cover band in Florida about a year after I first met them, and they were still using James’ picks.”

The picks have been left in virtually every state in the US, most continents in the world, and even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Famous musicians who have been given JPO picks include Todd Rundgren and his longtime bassist Kasim Sultan, Greg Hawkes (The Cars), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Peter Buck (REM), Mark Volman (Turtles), and Steve Morse and Roger Glover (Deep Purple).

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A JPO pick was left at Christ’s Tomb in Jerusalem

Callin’ me home

Though the picks were originally made for James’ funeral, when Kimberly gives a pick to somebody it gives her an opportunity to talk about his life rather than his death. While it obviously is a source of comfort for her and her family, in a way she is continuing the work that James was not able to complete himself.

“It keeps his music playing,” she says. “I tell people that if you’re a musician, use it; if you’re not, give it to a musician or find a beautiful place in the world to leave it and say a prayer. I also ask them to send me a photo.”

Following James’ death, Kimberly drew great comfort from the Samaritans, who provide grief counseling and suicide awareness and prevention services. She has been trained by them to counsel others and often speaks to groups of clinicians, social workers, and families affected by a loved one’s suicide. She always brings picks with her to hand out. When Kimberly spoke at a gala fundraising dinner for the Samaritans a couple of years ago, there was a pick at every person’s place setting.

“This tradition will be with me until the day I die,” says Kimberly. “After four years and some 5,000 picks, what it means to me now is that it keeps the happy memories of James in the forefront. He’s always with me, everywhere I go, and his music lives on through others using his picks.”

One of James’ favorite albums was the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and his favorite song off that album was the Gram Parsons composition, “Hickory Wind.” The last verse of the song reads:

It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real 

in a faraway city with a faraway feel 

But it makes me feel better each time it begins 

Callin’ me home, hickory wind 

Keeps callin’ me home, hickory wind

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The plaque on James’ grave

Join the pick pack

Kimberly and her family and friends are participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Walk on Saturday, September 20, 2014, in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Please follow this link if you would like to donate to Team James.

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Loved ones unite at the 2013 Out of the Darkness Walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Additionally, Kimberly has offered to send a JPO pick to whomever requests one (no donation needed). If you would like a JPO pick of your very own, simply send an email with your name and address to jpo.picks@gmail.com.

Jason M. Rubin is a Boston-based journalist and author, whose debut novel, “The Grave and the Gay,” was published in 2012. To learn more about Jason, visit jasonmrubin.com.

 

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