Ross Sears, a percussion teacher in the Cal Poly music department, died March 18 at the age of 61. Sears, who is most remembered for his boisterous humor, worked in the department as a part-time faculty member for more than 20 years.
Before coming to Cal Poly, Sears received his bachelor’s degree in percussion from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. This is also where Cal Poly music department chair Terrence Spiller received his master’s degree.
“We shared musical DNA,” Spiller said. “Because of Indiana, we kind of came from the same musical family tree.”
Spiller learned of Sears’ death after he missed a scheduled performance, Spiller said.
“He was always the consummate professional,” Spiller said. “So when he didn’t show up, we knew something was wrong. That was completely out of character.”
Spiller said Sears’ death surprised the department.
“Everyone was shocked,” Spiller said. “We knew he had some health issues, and yes, he was 61, but he was a very, very young 61 years. Ross was a wonderful musician, a fine teacher and a really popular person. He probably had the best humor and always had little jokes with everyone.”
His little jokes were the reason his students adored him, music junior Kevin Capacia said. Capacia first had a class with Sears as a freshman in Fall 2009 and continued to have classes with him each quarter. This gave the two a lot of time to bond over jokes.
Sears’ running joke with Capacia was to shout, “Hey, baby” in a high-pitched voice whenever the two would see each other across the hall in the music department, Capacia said. Sears also enjoyed quoting both “South Park” and “Family Guy,” shows Capacia said he was surprised Sears watched.
“He was a goofy guy,” Capacia said. “He could tell when you were having a crappy day. His ability to put a smile on your face regardless of everything is one of the things I hope he is remembered by.”
Like the rest of the music department, Capacia said he was shocked to hear of Sears’ death. Before spring break, the two went to Firestone Grill with a group of students following a performance. Capacia described the visit as a laid-back meal with a lot of laughing and joking on everyone’s part, especially Sears’.
“That was the last time any of us saw him,” Capacia said.
During Sears’ time at Cal Poly, the San Luis Obispo-native also performed with local groups such as the San Luis Obispo Symphony, Opera San Luis Obispo, the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts Theaterfest and Santa Maria Philharmonic.
San Luis Obispo Symphony communications director Patty Thayer said she knew Sears for more than 16 years. They met while working on the Mozart Festival — a series of summer concerts where only Mozart is played — and have been close since.
“He was a great guy — wonderful smile,” Thayer said. “And of course a great talent. Our music director, Michael Nowak, said it best when he said he was the ‘heartbeat of our orchestra.’ That’s just a lovely statement for a percussionist.”
Sears was also the most intriguing person to watch in performances, Thayer said.
“Any time I watched a symphony (Sears was in), I could not take my eyes off him if he had a significant part,” Thayer said. “He riveted me. It’s almost like he caressed the instrument into doing what he wanted it to do.”
Symphony executive director Jim Black was also intrigued by Sears when he performed.
“Of all the players in the orchestra, he’s who I watched the most,” Black said. “He was so careful and meticulous in the way he played.”
When playing in the symphony, whether at rehearsal or the actual performance, Sears would constantly be fussing with the sticks and drums and various instruments to ensure they were in working order, Black said.
Because of his involvement, both the San Luis Obispo Symphony and the Cal Poly Music Department will partner up to put on a musical memorial honoring Sears, Black said. It is scheduled to take place May 17 at 5:30 p.m. in Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre and will be open to the public.
The memorial will feature brief performances and speeches by family and friends as well as some of Sears’ students. Black said while the details on who will perform are not yet set, this musical tribute is the best way he could think of to remember Sears.
“He was embedded in music,” Black said. “It was his life, so it just fits.”