Contra music icon Bob McQuillen dies at 90
McQuillen suffered a massive stroke Sunday night when he was at Brady's Grill in Peterborough for dinner. He was taken to nearby Monadnock Community Hospital first and was then transferred to Catholic Medical Center in Manchester where he passed away Tuesday afternoon, longtime friend and contra dance caller Donald Primrose of Sullivan said Wednesday.
His wife, Priscilla Jean McQuillen died on the same day 29 years ago, Primrose said. The couple had three children and many more people who consider themselves part of Bob's family, Primrose said.
The legendary musician and songwriter was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002. It is the highest award for traditional and folk arts in the U.S. and was the first time an artist from the contra world received the honor.
"He was the old-timer on the scene when I started getting involved with contra dance stuff back in the 1970s," said contra musician Gordon Peery of Nelson on Wednesday. "For me he was really one of the most important people for many, many years, and part of that was when you were around him you felt you were a better person. …I am sure there are hundreds s of people who would say he was a very important person in their lives."
McQuillen was a larger than life person with an infectious love of life and a bag full of corny jokes, said contra dance caller and Marlow native Dave Eisenstadter of Somerville, Mass., who remembers McQuillen at the first contra dance he attended as a Keene State College student in 2002.
"I think that that is why he has been an icon in the contra dance community was this amazing positive attitude," Eisenstadter said.
McQuillen had also served as a Marine in World War II and the police chief of Dublin more than 30 years ago. Aside from his large role in the contra music scene in the Monadnock region and larger folk music scene across the country, McQuillen is also remembered for his decades as a teacher at Peterborough High School, now known as ConVal High School. He taught shop and electricity and was a wrestling coach.
"He was always a cheerleader for the school," Primrose said.
McQuillen was a prolific songwriter, writing about 1,500 tunes. He wrote his first tune in 1973 in honor of Scotty O'Neil, a former student who died tragically.
His songs were always named after people and events in his life, his friends said.
Monday night the weekly contra dance in Nelson was somber, said Peery.
McQuillen had played the Nelson Monday night contra dance for decades up until a year ago, Primrose said. He was able to attend and play at the Christmas dance in December, he said.
"Everybody felt moved and sad in our own way," Peery said of the musicians and dancers Monday night. "Also just realizing what an important person he was in our individual lives."
But everyone knew McQuillen would want the music and dancing to continue.
The band ended the night with McQuillen's waltz "Amelia."
The next day, Peery learned the waltz was also being played in McQuillen's honor at tributes for him across the country.
McQuillen passed surrounded by friends who gathered around him singing and holding hands in a circle with him, Primrose said.
Throughout the two-day vigil, hundreds of musicians either visited or called the hospital to tell McQuillen stories or play him music, Primrose said. McQuillen could not open his eyes or speak, but the playing of music drew a reaction from him, he said.
"I don't think there was a better man I've ever known in my life. He was loved by many and he was loved by me very much," Primrose said.