BY SUSAN M. BRACKNEY
Scissors poised, Barbara Richards faced a pile of men’s shirts and a mountain of grief. “Before I cut into the first shirt, I felt a huge weight on me,” the avid quilter recalls. Her task? Honor the memory of Steve Zegree, a larger-than-life musical talent and dear family friend claimed by cancer.
She and her husband, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards, had known Zegree since the late 1970s. “Gwyn was conducting an IU student chorus, and Steve was the accompanist in the chorus,” she says. “That’s how they met.” After graduation, the Richardses and Zegree left Bloomington but stayed in touch.
In 1992, Gwyn and Barbara returned to Indiana University. “We’d come from California,” Richards says. “The winters here were so gray. So, I took a quilting class and got hooked.” By 2001, Gwyn had become dean of the music school and, in 2012, Zegree also returned to IU, taking a position as a full professor and director of the Singing Hoosiers and the Vocal Jazz Ensemble.
“We just picked up where we left off,” Richards says. “I always said he was my Jiminy Cricket. He was very personable, very talented.”
A musical prodigy who began playing piano at age 3, Zegree would go on to perform on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center. He conducted the World Youth Choir during China’s 2008 Olympics; performed with jazz notables The Manhattan Transfer, Dave Brubeck, and Bobby McFerrin, among others; and prolifically published choral arrangements used worldwide.
“He did it all,” Richards remembers. “He was classically trained but could sit down at the piano and play anything.”
Zegree also took great interest in Richards’ quilting projects—many of which she named after songs. “He loved looking at them and wanted to know what the latest name was for something,” she says.
Trouble struck in 2015. “Only a few of us knew how ill he was,” Richards says. “He took a leave of absence, and subsequently died of pancreatic cancer.” It was March 2015—just seven months after Zegree’s initial diagnosis. He was 61.
Earlier that year Zegree, had married Laurie Hofmann. After his death, Hofmann asked Richards if she’d commemorate Zegree with an original quilt. “She brought over this ginormous suitcase with all of Steve’s shirts,” Richards says. There were stripes, checks, paisleys—even Hawaiian prints. “They didn’t match, but they played well together. They worked,” she says.