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Ronnie McGavock-01

Entertainer Ronnie McGavock performing at one of his shows. McGavock passed away in 1993 from leukemia.

While growing up, Melissa Klein remembers music being an integral part of her father’s life.

Well known under his professional name of Ronnie Eastman, Ronnie McGavock loved all kinds of music from big band music to the big hair bands in the ‘80s. Born into the rougher portions of Chicago, music was critical to the success of both Ronnie and his brother, Philip McGavock.

“There was never a time growing up in my life that there was never music,” Klein said. “He (Ronnie) appreciated all of the arts, but music was really his passion.”

Ronnie passed away in the winter of 1993 after a battle with cancer, with Philip passing last winter. To honor both brother’s love of music, the family announced this week it set up the McGavock Family Endowment for Music Education. The endowment, set up with a undisclosed donation from the McGavock family to the La Crosse Public Education Foundation, will provide an annual grant to support music education projects at School District of La Crosse schools.

“It was important to include Philip in this fund,” Klein said. “He was very shy. Music was his way to express himself.”

Ronnie and Philip were born in Chicago’s south side during the Great Depression in a family of five children. Both brothers started working at early ages to support the family, with Ronnie handling baggage at the local train station.

Philip went on to become an educator. Ronnie left high school early to join the U.S. Navy, before returning to finish his studies and starting a career at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Ronnie was always one to appreciate humor and the role it can play in business, Klein said, and after winning an employee holiday entertainment contest at the bank, Ronnie started a two-decade career as an entertainer. Ronnie headlined at clubs throughout the United States, even playing in Vegas.

Ronnie’s act was eclectic, with bits of pantomime mixed in with other styles and forms. Music was also important in his act, and he also did some stand-up routines.

“His act is hard to describe,” Klein said. “It took bits and pieces and added humor to it. He basically made a straight line funny.”

During his career he also headlined in La Crosse. In the 1950s, Ronnie was living and performing in La Crosse at some of the biggest nightclubs, Klein said, including the Melody Mill. In May of 1958, Ronnie met Yvonne Fry. They fell in love, and after a brief courtship, were married that October.

The two traveled the United States for the next decade with Ronnie performing, but when Melissa was born, Ronnie decided to settle down in La Crosse to give his family a chance at a stable life. Ronnie continued to perform, especially for children or seniors, but switched careers and built a name for himself in commercial and industrial real estate.

Klein remembers helping Ronnie set up during some of his performances when she was a little girl in the ‘70s. Ronnie performed less and less over the years, but when he did, he packed the joint.

“I was just a little peanut of a girl, and I would help him set up and get to watch the whole night,” she said. “People would line up out the door to see him perform. It was awesome.”

Along with his act, Ronnie had a musical car. Klein remembers how he would embarrass her when he’d come to pick her up from school, using the PA system he installed in his car to pick her out of the crowd. Or how there always seemed to be music blaring from his home studio.

“Music to me is incredibly powerful,” Klein said. “It has the ability to lift spirits and it lifted his spirits.”

The endowment is special to Steve Michaels, the school district’s fine arts supervisor. Funding for the arts is always hard to balance with funding core instructional needs, both Klein and Michaels said, and they are looking forward to the new opportunities the grant will provide for students in the district’s music programs.

“This is an example of how our community and the foundation is recognizing the importance of music education,” Michaels said. “This grant opens a lot of doors for us.”

“I’m excited to see what they do with it,” Klein said. “And how they utilize the funds.”

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