I could choose many words to describe Dwight Berry, but I’ll start by noting the first that comes to mind: selfless.
Indeed, Dwight Berry was one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known. He passed away in July 2018, but I can probably speak for so many people when I say this: he will never be forgotten.
His constant willingness to help me, and others, is what I will most remember him for, but make no mistake about it: his presence in a room was commanding, and his talents and abilities were revered in the small community of Roanoke Rapids and beyond. I will never forget the feeling in the sanctuary of Mt. Carmel Baptist in Jackson/Seaboard (I never know which town it’s really in) during the church’s 2012 revival when he played the piano as the night’s special music; to personify the piano, it had to be taken in for rehabilitation. He played that piano unlike it had ever been played before. That night, in front of just over fifty people, Dwight amazed.
Whether it was playing in front of a few people, or hundreds at the annual Christmas Eve service at Rosemary United Methodist (his home church) or a production at the Lakeland Theatre, Dwight amazed. He was a showman, and he knew it.
Despite his self awareness of his incredible talents, there was nothing wrong with him knowing he was good. His ability was coupled with a humbling desire to help others around him. And that, to me, is how he used his God-given talent to become the man we all knew Dwight Berry to be.
When I first took a job with the City of Roanoke Rapids as its Director of the Roanoke Canal Museum and Trail back in 2010, I started to learn the ins and outs of the town more than I had ever known. Growing up in Jackson where if you were going “somewhere” you went to Roanoke Rapids, I knew a little bit about the town, but never the “who’s who” and the inner workings of the town’s social and political arena. I started to learn much more about those things once I started working there, and by 2011 when I transitioned to what is now referred to as the “Main Street Director” as the head of the town’s downtown revitalization efforts, I soon rubbed elbows with the town’s elite (businessmen, politicians, etc.), though I never considered myself to be one of the elite. Not in the least bit.
Plagued with controversy and heated political debate for various reasons, Roanoke Rapids offered a real (sometimes nasty) look into the arena of local government politics. But it also offered an opportunity to meet tremendous people. One of them was Dwight Berry.
I first met Dwight at a local networking event; as soon as he walked into the room, I knew who he was. I had heard people describe him as flamboyant, eclectic, and incredibly good with conversation…and he was, indeed, all of those things and more. Simply put, Dwight didn’t look, or act, like anyone around him. His presence in a room was noticeable, and I personally admired all of those things about him. I, too, have never desired to fit in with the norm or be what society intends for me to be; I have always been “who I am,” and have always felt that if you didn’t like it…then no problem! If who I am fits in with societal norms, then great! But I have always believed that I am going to be who I am…with no compromise! Dwight struck me, even that first night, as someone who felt the same about himself.
To avoid confusion, from here on out if I say “Dwight,” I am referring to the real life Dwight. If I say “Dwight Kerry”, I’m referring to the book character.
In A New Requiem, I wanted to pay tribute to this man who inspired me in so many ways, so I modeled the character Dwight Kerry directly from the man I knew Dwight to be. In fact, Dwight Kerry is one of only two characters in the novel based entirely off someone I knew (I’ll reveal the second character in the weeks to come). Here is the way I introduce Dwight Kerry in the first chapter of the book:
Few if any people worked harder for the benefit of this community than Dwight Kerry. Dwight was the face of the arts, and widely-recognized in the community. A music teacher at the local high school, Dwight could be credited with offering a better raising to many of the community’s children than their own parents had afforded them. His care for his students was unmatched. He loved teaching and cherished the opportunity to inspire the next generation, but more than anything, he genuinely wanted every student to be better people when they left his classroom.
Dwight was an accomplished musician; both as an organist/pianist and a director. He did not belong here. He should have been playing in Carnegie Hall on a regular basis, or teaching music at Saint Olaf’s, the academic home of some of the most talented musicians. He was that good. Yet, here he was, in the little town of Freeden, North Carolina, playing and directing at the local concert hall that was known statewide as “the house Dwight built.”
He had grown up here and elected to come back after college to care for his then ailing mother, and after she died he chose to stay in the community. He loved the town, but, sadly, he found that the majority did not have such feelings toward him.
Dwight was gay. In the words of much of the local citizenry, he was “queer as a three-dollar bill.” His mannerisms were flamboyant and outlandish, and he wasn’t accepted with the town’s mostly fundamental, ultra-conservative population.
On this night, he directed the orchestra, that in which he could do just as well as he played the organ or piano. He stood in front of the orchestra and the choir, adorned with heavy eye liner on his eyebrows, combed-back, heavily-sprayed white hair, and a face made up with cosmetics and a foundation laid on thick. His face was “pretty”, but his attire deemed by locals as something as “manly” as what a straight gentleman would wear. He donned a black suit, crisp white shirt, and gold-striped tie, and his coat pocket on the chest was accented with a gold handkerchief. His shirt sleeves were pinned together with gold cuff links, each engraved with his initials, DK, a gift from a longtime friend who once sang in the community chorus but had passed, and in Dwight’s mind, gone on to be with the Lord.
Other than his hair and face, he looked like a genuine, Carolina southern gentleman. But no “real man”, as the good ‘ole boys of Freeden would say, “had a face that looked that pretty in this town”. His behaviorisms rarely mimicked his male counterparts in the town’s populous.
From my experience, the people of Roanoke Rapids, as a whole, did not treat Dwight in the manner described in the excerpt above. And I don’t want readers to focus too much on “Did Lance write the book about his hometown? Roanoke Rapids? The people he knew from there?” The answer is a resounding “No!” But did I ever see people in the area direct prejudices toward the man solely because he was different than societal norms? Most certainly.
Now, let me be clear: few people in that area ever said or did something unfair to or about Dwight in my presence. The overwhelming majority of people there, from my perspective, seemed to love him! At least it appeared that way on the surface. But as I noted in my first blog post, sometimes the ugliness of life looks clearer when it’s big, bold, and right in front of you. This is why I created the fictional town of Freeden in A New Requiem: I wanted the whole town to be full of the most radical, hateful people I’ve ever encountered in reality, so people can see the ugliness of casting judgment toward others and lacking empathy for others simply because they do not fully understand them.
Whether it’s your town, that town, or anywhere else in America, the reality is that the repulsiveness of unfair prejudices is still very much evident in 2019.
I do want to end suspicions of how specific my message is intended to be in the book: A New Requiem is not using Dwight (or Dwight Kerry) to push any specific group’s message or agenda. If that’s what you are expecting or get out of it, I think you’ve missed an even bigger picture. The message is about how we deal with things, concepts, and people that are different from what we are used to. Most would agree that if Dwight was lined up next to me and eighteen other citizens of Roanoke Rapids, Dwight would likely stick out, both in his appearance and mannerisms. But why must that be a bad thing? Why do people often believe conforming with societal norms is the only, and right, way? The point was made early in the novel that Dwight had no shame in being true to his identity:
Ben had made a life in Freeden, but had become the guy Freeden wanted him to be: a good ole boy just like the rest of them that fit in here. Once he came to know his hometown as a place full of hypocritical, backward-thinking people, he still allowed it to direct him and the way he lived. And he was silently ashamed of it.
Ben respected Dwight, though, as a man who had found success in Freeden and had done it his own way, without regard to the person everyone else probably wanted him to be. Ben saw Dwight as “his own man,” and revered him for being that way.
If Dwight taught me one thing, it’s that being me is okay. Someone I care for deeply told me recently that she “loves my uniqueness, and that it’s a good unique!” That meant so much to me, because not only am I fully aware that I am a unique, quirky person, I also know that at times in my life my uniqueness has been perceived as a bad thing. To hear someone say, “It’s okay to be you!” is unbelievably refreshing. Dwight used to remind me of that often, as he likely did for many others he mentored and encountered.
Dwight taught me that you can serve others by still being yourself. Dwight spent his entire life serving others. Even after he retired, his daily hodge podge of literary, life lessons, and grammar-suggestive posts on Facebook were, in many ways, designed to help others be better. And for anybody who knew Dwight, we can likely also agree that his posts may have resulted from his distaste for common grammatical errors he would see on his Facebook friends’ timelines. I will admit, bad grammar would absolutely irk him!
I don’t really remember how we connected after I first met him, but I do recall frequent dinners with my “friend” at David’s Restaurant where he would have me rolling with his incredible humor. Those who knew Dwight would absolutely know that this line from the book is a direct reference from his repertoire of lines he often used:
He [Dwight] could quickly point out if people in his life were acquaintances or if they were real friends, and had no problem telling others which of those he thought they were in his life, either. A few years ago, Ben recalled Dwight telling him, “Ben, I don’t tell many people this…but I consider you to be a true friend. One of my best.”
Dwight and I undoubtedly became friends in real-life. At some point he learned I was a singer (a baritone to be exact) and offered to serve as my music instructor to “extend my range.” He heard me sing one time, and said, “I can extend your range if you’ll let me work with you.” I let him, and he delivered. Every Tuesday at 2:00pm, I would use my lunch break and go to the choir room at Rosemary United Methodist, where he would work with me for about an hour. For the nearly year-long period in which he did this, he never accepted one penny for helping me, even though I offered. I firmly believe, in his heart, that he just wanted to help.
To me, Dwight’s humor was just as incredible as anything else about him; the novel references his refined sarcasm and humor, too. I did not model any of the novel’s characters around me, but I did offer a formal “thank you” in the novel to the real-life Dwight for the vocal lessons he offered me back in 2011 when our friendship was still growing. Here’s how: Ben Bailey, the novel’s lead character, attorney, and community choir member, has an exchange with Dwight Kerry at the reception following the concert, Mozart’s Requiem, about the music lessons he gave him before the concert:
“Well, I am just so glad you finally agreed this time to participate in the chorus! You did great!”
Ben chuckled. “I successfully filled a void, we’ll say that.”
“Oh please,” he laughed. “You’ve come a long way.”
“Yes I have,” he acknowledged, “thanks to you.”
“Well, you have been just a pleasure to work with.”
“Please let me pay you for the private vocal lessons you provided me, Dwight.”
He looked around the room to see if anyone had heard the conversation, then he placed his hand on Ben’s right arm. “You’ve already paid last week, remember? You wrote me a check for the whole spring season.”
Ben looked confused. Then Dwight leaned in and whispered, “You’re not paying me for anything and don’t speak about this too loudly. I’ve got about five old ladies I am charging out the ass for their grandchildren’s lessons within twenty feet of us right now.”
Again, Ben Bailey is not me, but I did enjoy building the friendship Ben and Dwight Kerry had in the novel in the relatively same way Dwight and I built our friendship in real life.
I hope that in A New Requiem, I made the character Dwight Kerry the way Dwight was to most of you who knew him. If you didn’t know him, I hope I did him justice; he was a good man, stylish in his own way, uniquely gifted, multi-faceted, funny, and well-respected.
The storyline is, again, fictional, but the message behind A New Requiem is very much one I believe Dwight would have believed in: empathize and try to understand others, even if they’re different from you.
Even though the excerpts I shared came from the first few chapters of the novel, I have so much more I could say about Dwight Kerry and how the real-life Dwight served as the model for the character, but I’ll let this last excerpt close.
There Dwight stood, as postured as ever, directing the orchestra, which to many in the audience may have looked like an endless waving of arms that made absolutely no sense. The orchestra though, was very in tune with whatever his flailing arms were trying to convey, and from the feedback the audience had given so far that evening, the performance amazed. Ben stared at his fearless leader, Dwight, and could tell he was proud. The eyebrows rising and that unforgettable smile where his grin stretched from ear to ear was the memorandum of understanding Dwight’s chorus needed: he was satisfied with their performance.
Dwight: I know you have passed on, but I hope you will look down from heaven and be satisfied with this performance: A New Requiem.