Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are and the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?
Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter
A chord, we are told, is any group of three or more notes that, when sounded together, are the basis for harmony.
It is fitting to consider Gary Packwood’s life story in such musical terms.
As director of choral activities at Mississippi State, a position the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native has held for the past four years, the chord that blends his life story is composed of three distinct notes: people, profession and passions.
His tune has not been without challenges, not the least of which came in 2001 when he lost his right arm in an ATV accident, an event he faced with the same cheerful, optimistic attitude that has become something of a personal trademark.
So where to start?
The rules in the Packwood house were simple. At age 5, each of the three Packwood brothers (Gary is the youngest) were required to take piano lessons. “Then, when we got to middle school, we had three choices: We could continue with the piano, join the school band or sing in the choir. I had been singing since as long as I could remember, so that’s what I chose.”
Like the components of a musical score, the seven things that Gary has selected to represent his life make up the symphony whose first notes sounded back home in Baton Rouge at his mother’s knee.
1. A small, faded color photo shows Gary around age 5, with his MOTHER, Bertha. It is the only photo he has of his mom, who died in 1993 at age 87. “Maybe because I was the youngest, she kept me close,” he says. “Because of that, I learned so many things from her – how to sew, cook, all of those things.” But the greatest lesson he learned from his mom, he says, was how to interact with people. “She told me — and it’s something that’s always stuck with me — ‘There is a way to talk to a dog if you want him to do something.’ That’s true: So much of what I do as a teacher relies on how well I am able to communicate with the students. There is a right way to do that. Mom taught me that.”
2. There is another photo that Gary keeps in his office, one of his BROTHER, Chris, and his family. Chris is the middle child, four years older than Gary, and was Gary’s first hero. “I thought he was the smartest person in the world,” he says. “He was my teacher, my protector, the person I could talk to about anything.”
3. A PASSPORT, in and of itself, might not seem to tell a musical story. In Gary’s case, however the stamps are evidence of just how far his talent for singing has taken him — all across Europe, Malaysia, where he said he was overwhelmed by the reception he received, to Brazil, where he not only sang, but found his partner for life.
4. The WEDDING BAND is a simple one, but full of meaning, especially this day. On the day of this interview, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in every state and U.S. Territory. It was a moment that Gary and Joao, his spouse of 11 months, watched in amazement.
“Joao was just mesmerized, watching all the people who were there in Washington to hear that ruling. He couldn’t believe it. While it is difficult to be a gay man in the black community, it has been even harder for Joao. He’s from Brazil and the culture there is a lot different. It’s harder there.”
Even though same-sex marriage is now legal in the U.S., they have no plans for another wedding here. “One ceremony is enough,” Gary says, laughing.
5. Music may dominate his life, but it is not his only passion. A small Rembrandt SCULPTURE of a tennis racket and ball are a reminder of another love. “I played tennis for 18 years and, really, I was good at it. I played in hundreds of tournaments all over the place,” he says. “Who knows? If things had been different, I might have played professionally. But tennis is one of those things you have to start at a very early age, and I didn’t start playing until I was older. The other thing is that tennis is a very expensive sport — the travel, the training. Not everyone has the opportunity.”
He has no regrets, however. The sculpture, given to him by an old doubles’ partner, is a happy reminder of his playing days, and while he no longer plays, his love of the sport has not diminished. “Yeah, I’m one of those guys who gets up at 2 in the morning to watch the Australian Open on TV,” he admits.
6. Three framed DIPLOMAS occupy a part of his office wall — from Southeast Lousiana (bachelor’s degree), Florida Atlantic University (master’s) and Louisiana State University (Ph.D.). “Growing up, Dad told each of us boys that we had two choices: We could go to college and he would pay for everything, or we could get a job and he would give us one of the houses he owned and some money to get started. I was the only one who chose to go to college. I wound up getting three degrees. I joke that I got a degree for each of us.”
7. The simple wood CONDUCTOR’S BATON brings his life story to a fittingly musical conclusion. It is not exceptional in any way, other than the memories attached to it. “It was a present from my chorale group when I was teaching at Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida,” Gary says. “I spent eight years there, and I learned so much. The students were just great, and I found the experience so rewarding. When I first started, like most people just starting out, I wasn’t sure if teaching was right for me. But during that time there, I realized that this was something I wanted to do. I’ve never thought of doing anything else since.”