Walla Walla man's gift one that gives back

Mental illness derailed Andy Dickison's musical life, but the violin is back in his hands for his part in a benefit concert.

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With casual grace, Andy Dickison performs Vivaldi's G Minor Violin Concerto on the sidewalk in front of Peach and Pear Fruit Forward Desserts on 1st Avenue. Dickison, a talented violinist who lives with mental illness, was playing to raise money for a new Rising Sun Clubhouse. He will be part of a benefit concert, also to raise money for the Clubhouse, on November 22nd of this year. November 15, 2010

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Framed within a fractured spotlight from posters on the inside window of Peach and Pear Fruit Forward Desserts on 1st Avenue, Andy Dickison plays his music on the sidewalk as passersby (left) put money in his open violin case. Dickison, a gifted violinist who lives with mental illness, will be part of a benefit concert on November 22nd to raise money for a new Rising Sun Clubhouse. November 15, 2010

COLLEGE PLACE -- When Andy Dickison plays his violin Monday night, it will be his first time in front of an audience in nearly four decades.

Dickison will join the Walla Walla Valley Academy orchestra at 7 p.m. in a concert at Walla Walla University Church.

The event, Music in Mind, is a fundraiser for Rising Sun Clubhouse. Members there are working toward getting a larger facility, as well as keeping the doors open at the current address of Third Avenue and Chestnut Street.

He's nervous about his comeback debut, Dickison conceded. "Oh my, yes."

The violinist will play "Meditation" from the opera, "Tha?Øs." His performance is but a small sliver of the concert, he insisted, anxious to credit the students with the bulk of the presentation. "What I am doing is just an example of what a mentally ill person can achieve."

The idea of the benefit concert started growing last spring, when WWVA orchestra director Ben Gish was approached by Andrew Hanson, a Walla Walla University alumnus who volunteers at Rising Sun Clubhouse.

Hanson brought along Dickison to talk to the young musicians about mental illness, Gish recalled. "Andy talked to the kids about the clubhouse and what it does. He very nicely explained his circumstances to them and told them the clubhouse had saved his life."

When the orchestra students were asked if they wanted to participate in the fundraiser, the answer was immediate, Gish said. "It was overwhelmingly 'yes.'"

It's that sort of partnership that may save the clubhouse, which has teetered close to the edge of closing for several months. The nonprofit organization provides a social setting and services for those living with mental illness, and is the only venue of its kind in the Walla Walla area.

Not only is the present building inadequate to meet the needs of its members, but its only certain income is $1,000 a month from Walla Walla County's Department of Human Services, according to Don Nichols, interim manager. "But the commitment to keeping the doors open is just huge. We have a broad donor base."

Members have designed a batch of donated envelopes to pass out at Monday's concert for freewill offerings, he added.

Dickison hopes to see 2,000 people in the audience. Not only will such a turnout reward the effort, it offers his clubhouse peers the chance to see that this community understands and supports the need, he said.

That crucial support is easily seen in the Walla Walla man's life.

The 55-year-old grew up in the North Bay area outside San Francisco. His passion for music was seeded in fourth grade when his music teacher came into the room and played the violin, he said. "It was love at first sight."

At 9, he was a little late starting a violin career, but Dickison joined the school orchestra and quickly advanced. Soon he was invited to be part of the Sonoma County Junior Symphony, initially as last chair violin.

After two seasons he was granted the position of concert master, which required hard but enjoyable work, he said.

Dickison was a senior in high school when his sunny future blackened, he said. "That whole year I was depressed. Nobody really identified it, it wasn't well-known at that time. My teachers definitely didn't have a clue was what was going on."

While he managed to keep his grades up, he lost interest in everything, including his violin. Dickison enrolled in community college, but was forced to drop out, he remembered. "Depression had grabbed a hold of me and basically ruined my chances."

The musician slept as much as he could, and bounced from job to job. He managed to enlist in the Air Force and served as a security police officer from 1978 to 1981.

That's the year Dickison's illness fully announced itself, "blossoming" into attempted suicide, he said. "At that point I was hearing voices ... I thought I was talking to God and angels."

Military doctors were somewhat helpful, but Dickison was not correctly diagnosed until he was in the VA hospital in Roseburg, Ore.

He was reading a book given to him about schizophrenia and recognized his symptoms, he said. "The doctor told me to try Haldol (a prescription antipsychotic). I got better. I really got better."

The voices that had filled his brain grew quiet enough to be manageable and his mood swings were balanced much of the time, Dickison explained.

He spent years learning to live with his complicated diagnosis, which includes bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. The medicine Dickison takes is helpful, but does not offer complete relief, he said. "There is still always a low volume of voices in my head, 24-7, that I have to deal with."

Acceptance of his illness didn't come easily, Dickison said. "I was mad at God, for a long time, that my career had been cut short. That I was unable to function."

In January, however, Dickison worked up the courage to pick up the violin, but not without trepidation. "I was scared everything I had learned was gone."

It was like getting back on a bike, he discovered, and Dickison once again plays fervently. He had sold his childhood violin, but recently bought the best one he could afford from Pendelton House of Music, he said. "I'm very happy with it. It takes care of my needs for now. I'm on Social Security disability, so I'm not too sure if I will ever be able to buy a better one."

He has taken the "Meditation" piece and infused his interpretation with the passion that came from his past suicidal thoughts -- taking a dark moment and turning it into art, the musician noted.

Working on it almost without ceasing has its own consequence. "I practice so much, the A string breaks regularly," Dickison said with a laugh.

His musical gift can be used for giving back, he feels. "This concert is really important for keeping the clubhouse doors open. I think everyone at Rising Sun would suffer more than you know if it closes its doors. The clubhouse has supported me though many ups and downs."

On Monday night, Dickison will be wearing traditional black and white, "the best clothes I have. That's not really what's important."

That's found in the willingness of the WWVA students to partner in the cause, Dickison said. Gish agrees. "It's a new experience for me to be able to jump in with both feet and help something out in a very tangible way.

"I'm very glad we have the opportunity to try and rescue something."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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