by RIP RENSE
YOU'RE A GOOD MAN,
(Feb. 14, 2007)
renting a DVD at Vidiots one night, the specialty video joint in
Santa Monica, while one of the old “Peanuts” specials was playing on the
monitors. The employees tend to be entertainment freaks---uh,
specialists---with encyclopedic knowledge and eclectic taste in things
The guy who was waiting
on me had one eye on the “Peanuts” special.
“Wonder,” he said to no
one in particular, “whatever happened to Shermy.”
He knew his
did this fellow, inquiring as to the fate of one of the original characters.
Fate had conspired to
sneak up on him. Or maybe on me. I smiled.
“He’s my neighbor,” I
Vidiot Employee gave me a
kind of dumbstruck Linus look.
“Really,” I added. “He
lives in my building. He and Schulz were best friends as kids, and stayed
close for life. He’s a retired Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School
District music teacher, and a hell of a nice guy.”
Employee stared at me, as if perhaps I was a vision of some sort, if not a
pathological liar who haunted video stores, playing tricks on the staff. I
“I’m not kidding. His
name’s Sherman Plepler.”
The rather incredible
name (I can make such comments with impunity) sealed my credibility.
“Hey!” Employee yelled to
a colleague. “You know how we were talking a few minutes ago about Shermy?
This guy lives next door to him!”
It’s not a bad claim to
fame, sharing a condo building with a character from the most duly famous
and loved comic strip in history. It sure as hell beats saying “I have a
Yes, I know Shermy, but
really, I know Sherm. There is little similarity, or at least you don’t see
it at first. Sherm, for example, is about five-feet-ten, and around 80, and
Shermy is about a half-inch (he was an inch on Sundays), and perhaps seven.
Sherm wears slacks and sweaters, and Shermy wore striped T-shirts and short
pants. Shermy had a crew cut, and Sherm has wispy white strands.
Shermy was a redoubtable, if infrequent and taciturn presence in “Peanuts.”
The kind of kid who, once he becomes your friend, will always be your
friend. Someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, daydream with. . .
one strip from 1956---you know, one of
those years that happened before 9/11---Shermy and Charlie Brown are sitting
on a curb, passing the time as kids do (or did), when Shermy observes, “Big
people are always asking me what I’m going to be when I grow up. How do they
expect us to know?” Next panel: “Do you know what you’re going to be when
you grow up, Charlie Brown?”
Answer: “Sure. Lonesome.”
If Shermy existed largely
for his good pal Charlie Brown to talk to---Sherm did much the same for his
childhood pal, “Sparky” Schulz. And therein, I think, lies their similarity.
Sherman Plepler, you see,
is a rock. You might not guess it to look at him today, as he has been
battling gravity, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, for a
long time. He walks with a cane, and is apt to wobble on uneven ground, but
there is nobody better to talk to, ask questions of, run things by---and
nobody I’d rather rely on in a pinch. It is no stretch to say that Sherm
embodies the better stuff of humanity, however tentative a boast that might
For Sherm has the rare,
teacherly gift of making one feel important, sane, consequential. He doesn’t
patronize, or glad-hand---he listens, understands, respects, and responds.
He is deeply possessed of what is probably the one quality that poses any
chance of saving the human race: empathy. No wonder he was a teacher for
most of his life, and no wonder he is still not only in touch with former
students, but still listening to them, understanding them, and responding to
Gushing? Can’t help it.
It’s hard to write with any restraint about Plepler. Understatement always
makes for greater impact, but understatement does not come easily
here---unless it comes from Sherm himself as he speaks with characteristic
self-deprecation and jocularity.
I mean, bring up
“Peanuts,” and you get the idea that he is bemused at the fact that he
will always be pint-sized with a crew-cut. That he will live forever inside
little black squares drawn by the guy with whom he shared a metaphorical
curb for life. Sherm doesn’t tout being Shermy, though he will bring it up
with a wry smile and a twinkle in the eye when you get to know him a little.
“It never really meant a
great deal to me at the time, and I was always totally amazed when
publications such as Time Magazine and others searched me out for thoughts,”
he’ll tell you.
It’s not that he isn’t
proud, but the pride is in having known Sparky, not having been a scribbled
manifestation of his muse. PBS interviewed him a few months ago for an
“American Masters” on Schulz (to
air later this year), and Sherm delighted in going on film with stories of
their childhood together in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his thoughts on the
enduring appeal of Charlie Brown, et. al.
“People relate to Peanuts
for different reasons,” he said. “Some people loved his so-called theology,
others think of themselves as Charlie Brown who seldom can manage to do
anything quite right, while other pet owners think that their pet is as
intelligent as Snoopy.”
By the way, Sherm is one
of the few living people who knew the real
Snoopy, or at least the model for the world’s most famous canine. In
fact, it was a drawing of the dog that first made him realize that his
friend had some serious talent.
“It was when the
Saturday Evening Post accepted Sparky’s drawing for Robert Ripley’s
‘Believe or Not,’ when he described his dog
Spike, the forerunner of
Snoopy, who ate some nails and glass and seemed to enjoy it.”
Sherm will also tell you
about how much fun “Sparky” had inserting sports into “Peanuts”---“He was a
Wayne Gretzky type hockey player, and could have been a professional
golfer”---and how proud Schulz was to have introduced Franklin, the first
black character to appear in any comic strip. He’ll explain how Schulz
probably felt much like Charlie Brown due to rejections in his childhood,
and sort of wryly chuckles over the fact that Shermy was discontinued after
1970 (In the1965 animated “Peanuts” Christmas special, Shermy has one line:
“Every Christmas it’s the same: I always end up playing a Shepherd.”)
“His readers probably
realize that he had dropped several characters during the years," Sherm said,"
adding "He laughed heartily while informing me that 'I no longer have
But for Sherm, the
Beethoven-obsessed “Peanuts” favorite,
might never have existed:
“Being that my mother was
a fine pianist,” he said, “ I became interested in the violin at an early
age and started taking lessons. I must add that Sparky spent many an hour in
listening to me practice as well as discovering the composer Beethoven at my
home while listening to my mother perform her favorite composer.”
And this anecdote brings
us to the essential identity of Sherm/Shermy. . .
While Schulz spent a
lifetime at a sketch pad, Sherm spent his with a violin under his chin. He
taught band, orchestra, chorus in Minnesota and Wisconsin, played with the
Duluth Symphony Orchestra, performed with
band at the
Aragon Ballroom in Chicago at the height of the era, and wound up in
L.A., spending 30 years with the Santa Monica-Malibu Union School District.
He was equally at home fiddling around with jazz, navigating the Mendelssohn
Violin Concerto, and conducting student orchestras.
“Sure, I saw him perform
and conduct,” said his long-ago student and lifelong friend, Lois White. “He
was amazing at both things. All of us were just kids, but he behaved like we
were in Carnegie Hall and not just a bunch of dipheads. His ongoing
steadfastness, kindness, intelligence, and compassion couldn’t help but
If friends are a measure
of a life well lived, ex-students who return as friends must be the measure
of a teaching life well lived. Another of Sherm's ex-students who stays in touch
is Michael Sachs,
first chair trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra. It was Sherm who
encouraged Sachs to stick with music during a time of doubt. Good thing,
too, as John Williams wound up dedicating his trumpet concerto to Sachs, saying he was
the musician most capable of performing it.
“Sherm is a very kind and
gentle man,” said composer
Moira Levant, who began learning violin from
Plepler in third grade. “Often,
gentleness and kindness are thought of as weakness. I would not call Sherm
‘weak’ in any sense. He’s got strong conviction, but at the same time isn’t
Levant stopped studying
music with Plepler at age 12, when she left California. Twenty-four years
later, she found him on-line and was moved to reestablish---or, perhaps,
establish---a close friendship.
“When my brother died
in 2004, I was in Ireland (pursuing a Master’s in ethnomusicology), and
it was Sherm I called for advice. He said ‘finish the degree and then go
home and take care of your grieving family.’ He has always made time for me
even when it was hard for him. I enjoy his humor and realism; he has yet to
give me bad advice. He’s a hero to me.”
And also to White:
"He always thinks of other people and
how they're doing, what they might need or want,” she said, recalling one
Thanksgiving years ago when she was a guest with Plepler, family and
“My birthday is around
Thanksgiving,” she said. “We were sitting down to eat when Sherm got up.
Nobody thought anything of it until he came back to the table a little too
late for it to have been a bathroom trip, and gave me a birthday card. He'd
realized it was my birthday, and had gone out to the closest store and got
it. I know that's a small thing, but it wasn't to me.”
“True happiness is
finding ex-students who still look me up while expressing a feeling of
warmth. I wish that nations could also do the same.”
(Sounds like something
Schulz might have put in a “Peanuts” strip.)
Sherm’s violin is gone
now. The music has stopped. Or rather, it has been stopped by things with
the chillingly clinical names, “acoustic neuroma.” These are tumors that
took up residence behind each of his ears late in life, and eventually shut
down their function altogether. He is almost as deaf to the world as George
Yet such Beethovenian
fate has never once compromised the man’s affable spirit. In the ten
years I’ve known him, I have not once heard self-pity, though he is hardly
beyond barbed complaints about the health care system. He fires off periodic
e-mails to friends on his medical progress, generally laced with sardonic
observations about HMO’s---and praise for his doctors and nurses.
As for the incurable
tumors, radiation arrested their growth, at least temporarily, and Sherm
persuaded doctors to let him volunteer as a guinea pig for experimental
treatment—-becoming the first person with advanced acoustic neuromas to
undergo cochlear implant surgery.
“I figure if my case
might help give doctors new data, that’s a good thing,” he is wont to say.
The surgery was tricky,
and the recovery painful. Because the tumors must be periodically measured
with MRI’s, doctors could not implant the magnetic part of the device that
translates cochlear stimulation into sound, as it would interfere with MRI’s.
So Sherm tapes the magnet portion to the side of his head(!), making
him look vaguely bionic. It’s pioneering technique, and it has succeeded to
the extent that he now picks up wayward words and sounds. If you want to
converse with him, though, bring a pad and pencil---or a computer keyboard.
“It's truly been tough,
particularly in not being able to hear music again,” he admitted. “But I'm
extremely grateful that my tumors didn't occur while younger, as I was able
to conclude my career as an instructor of music.”
This is typical.
He doesn’t tell you about the pain, the bureaucratic nonsense
that postponed his surgery while the tumors increased, or the time he stuck
his hand in a garbage disposal while it was turned on---because (gasp) he
couldn’t hear it. (He got away with stitches.)
all, you get the impression that this is a happy man, despite the deafness,
despite the loss in 2000 of his dear friend, Schulz. One factor is certainly
his effervescent, stalwart “girlfriend” of many years, Ann---a former fellow music teacher in Santa Monica.
What does trouble Sherm,
and produces undisguised anguish, is the state of the world.
“Having grown up before
TV, computers, cell phones, etcetera," he said, "I sometimes wonder how much
true happiness they've added to our lives. When growing up, Sparky and I
spent many an hour after school while playing winter hockey in our spacious
backyards, baseball in warmer weather, and just enjoying each other while
talking of our dreams. I somehow wish that more of our young people could do
This brings to mind
one more “Peanuts” strip, also from 1956.
Shermy and Charlie Brown are resting their elbows on a brick wall. Says
Charlie Brown, “I sure get discouraged sometimes.” Next panel: they are
walking, Charlie Brown leading, as he continues, “The only consolation is
that it can’t last forever.” Third panel: “The way I see it,” Charlie Brown
continues, “these must be the hard years.” Final panel: he turns to his
friend, spreads his arms wide, and joyously proclaims, “Then, after you grow
up, all your troubles are over!”
Not quite. But then, in a
way, Sparky Schulz saw to it that he and his pal, Shermy, never had to worry
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