Hundreds Pay Tribute To Van Cliburn

Musicians and politicians pay tribute to Texas icon

The Sunday service for Van Cliburn was filled with beautiful music and beautiful words from those who knew him the best.

"Over these past two decades, God blessed me by having the privilege of knowing the kindest, most humble and extraordinary, brilliant man," said Thomas L. Smith, Van Cliburn's friend of long standing. "Those years were filled with great joy."

"Van's death is a crater-sized void that is felt around the world, but for me it is the loss of my soul mate, the deepest friendship," Smith said.

Nearly 1400 people packed the Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth to hear music from the Fort Worth symphony and tributes from dignitaries. Van Cliburn died Wednesday at the age of 78. He was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer in August.  

The Kilgore, Texas native is best remembered for winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.

For years, Van Cliburn played the piano and won over so many with his music. Today, the music was for him...and so were the heartfelt words and praise.

"He was gracious and  humble, beloved even by the enemy," said former President George W. Bush.

Van Cliburn played for every President since Harry Truman.

"I know that I was blessed to have befriended this remarkable man and I know Van did his part to spread peace and love," President Bush said.

The president also spoke about Cliburn's achievement in Russia.

"The definition of a diplomat is a person with a temperament marked by tact in dealing with sensitive matters," President Bush said. "Nothing was more sensitive than two superpowers armed with thousands of warheads aimed at each other. Nobody was more tactful than Van Cliburn."

That though was echoed by many.

"In his world, making music wasn't just something he did at the piano, it was something he did to the world around him," Texas Governor Rick Perry said.

“I think the thing that horrified Van the most was envy, made so much sense because in a way, envy is an antonym of generosity, and no one ever showed more generosity than Van,” said Sid Bass.

Jose Feghali won the gold medal in Van Cliburn’s 7th competition. He remembers knowing about the legendary pianist from a young age.

“My earliest memories of Van were through his playing because my mother had several of his recordings,” said Feghali.

As emotional and heartfelt as his tribute was, President George W. Bush was able to sneak in a light joke, when remembering a fond memory.

“On April 11 1994, Van Cliburn helped open the Ballpark in Arlington by playing the Star Spangled Banner” with a smile, President Bush added, “few remember that the home team lost to Milwaukee 4-3.”

Among those in the pews were former Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief.

"Van was a good friend of Rosie's and mine," said Moncrief. "And while many knew him as an outstanding world renowned concert pianist, to us he was just 'Van'."

"He was such a giving, kind, compassionate individual that we will miss a great deal," said Moncrief.

NBC 5 Entertainment Reporter Bobbie Wygant interviewed Van Cliburn.

"I wanted to come for, out of respect and love for Van and also I knew that it would be a memorable service," said Wygant.

"I don't see anybody who will fill the void, completely, because he was the total package."

Others Remember Van Cliburn

Here is a sampling of memorial messages posted online after news of Cliburn's passing began to circulate around North Texas and the world.

"This week, we mark the passing of Van Cliburn, one of the most talented pianists of the last century and a musical artist of rare distinction. At the young age of 23, Mr. Cliburn swept the world off its feet with his winning performance at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and he quickly became a beloved ambassador of American culture around the world - especially in the former Soviet Union. His music transcended the challenges of international politics and contributed to an unlikely thaw in Cold War relations. He was truly a man of his moment. Like every President since Harry Truman, I enjoyed the privilege of hearing Mr. Cliburn play, and I am confident that the enduring beauty of his art will sustain his legendary status for years to come. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Mr. Cliburn's loved ones." - President Barack Obama

“Van Cliburn lived an extraordinary life and was a true man of his times. His prodigious gifts at the piano are legendary, and his storied accomplishment at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition helped bring the world closer together. His larger-than-life talent helped transcend discourse and reminded us that we are, at the core of our being, all human beings who love works of beauty. On a personal note, Anita and I will miss him tremendously.  We were blessed to call Van Cliburn a close friend.  He was an incredibly thoughtful person and his love of life was contagious to anyone in his company. Anita and I send our deepest condolences to his family, friends and fans during this difficult time.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry

"Everybody is just devastated by it. He's in a much better place now. Van was one of the greatest ambassadors for Fort Worth that ever has been. He's single-handedly thrust us into the the international spotlight with his piano playing and then the Van Cliburn competition. It brings people from all over the world ... We will sorely miss Van. His energy. His enthusiasm. His talent just  brought a world of light to Fort Worth ... I just remember Van not only for his playing but also his personality. I saw him about 8 weeks ago and he was in the car and he could barely hop out,
but he hopped out and hugged my neck. He was always so energetic and so warm and caring and if you knew Van, you couldn't help but love the man that he was." -
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

Read additional messages of in this story: Remembering Van Cliburn

Previous Coverage:

Editor's Note: Memorial organizers have asked the media to refer to Thomas L. Smith only as Van Cliburn's "friend of long standing."

Contact Us