Donald Kawash, 71, award-winning ragtime piano player.

Kawash
Kawash
Posted: May 01, 2014

DONALD KAWASH lost his job as a teaching assistant at Temple University in 1972 after 1960s-inspired student protests disrupted his American history course.

What to do? Out of work and needing an income, Don turned to playing piano in local bars and parties. His specialty was ragtime, particularly the songs of Scott Joplin, the African-American composer and piano player of the early 20th century.

Although he was far from giving up teaching, Don was launched on a parallel career as one of the nation's top ragtime virtuosos, whose playing progressed from local night spots to the Smithsonian, the Kimmel Center, Scotland and more than 200 classic American music shows up and down the East Coast.

Donald Kawash, a music and history teacher at Germantown Friends School for more than 35 years, died Friday, two weeks after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 71.

Don excelled at both his careers. He was revered by his students at Germantown Friends, who asked him to speak at commencement exercises more than any other teacher, and was a three-time winner of the All-American Ragtime Piano Competition.

After performing at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in 1987, BBC described him as a "great entertainer," and invited him to perform on BBC radio. He also played on Voice of America programs.

Don and his longtime friend Randy Shupp, a bass-baritone singer, formed a group called Rags 2 Riches. Over the past five years, they performed at more than 100 senior centers and nursing homes in the area with a program of classic American music.

"Together we created nine different programs of Classic American Popular Music, primarily music from the first half of the 20th century," Shupp wrote.

"I am still learning about the incredible depth and breadth of Don's musical talent and his many, many different musical collaborations."

Don was also active with the Old Academy Players, a community theater in East Falls, where he was music director of an annual holiday revue for many years.

During Philadelphia's Bicentennial celebration in 1976, Don presented "Scott Joplin and Friends: A Ragtime Vaudeville."

He was a guest on Terry Gross' Fresh Air program on NPR three times.

The emotional impact of Rags 2 Riches performances was described by Jane Givens in the Cathedral Village Villager:

"It was good to hear 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' again and another piano solo before they closed with 'Everything Old Is New Again.'

"With the song's last line, 'Dreams can come true again, 'cause everything old is new again,' still ringing in our ears, we left with smiles on our faces and hope and joy in our hearts."

As a teacher, "Don made a profound difference in the lives of his students, his colleagues and even some parents," Shupp wrote in his tribute.

"So many of Don's students have gone on to be composers, musicians, opera singers, actors and all-around fine human beings."

Don was born into a Lebanese family in Lawrence, Mass. He received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and came to Philadelphia for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

He started teaching at Temple in 1968. When he was denied tenure, he made his living with his piano for a time, and eventually took the job at Germantown Friends.

He is survived by a brother, George.

Services: Memorial service 4 p.m. May 18, at Germantown Friends Meeting, 47 W. Coulter St.

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