Tom George and Ron Edwards play music

UMSL Chancellor Tom George (on piano) and Ron Edwards entertained a crowd of well-wishers at Edwards’ retirement party July 20 in the Millennium Student Center. Edwards, coordinator of audiovisual services, is retiring after 41 years of service to the university. Edwards’ last official duty was to set up the sound and slideshow for his own party.

Ron Edwards is a great storyteller. The longtime coordinator of audiovisual services at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, reminisced last week as he prepared for his retirement party. After 41 years of service to the university, he has a lot of stories.

Like the time in 1980 when he booked Chicago blues legend J.B. Hutto to play the auditorium in the J.C. Penney Building/Conference Center. It was one of more than 200 concerts he produced on campus every Wednesday at noon.

“Hutto was a friend, so I got him to play for $150 and lunch. He had a 50 ft. extension cord on his guitar, which allowed him to jump across the top of the seats. Yeah, that was a big hit,” Edwards said, chuckling through his distinctive mustache and muttonchops.

Edwards will tell you his work at UMSL gave him the freedom to pursue his passion for blues music in two forms – one as a bottleneck guitarist, the other as a blues historian and radio producer for KDHX (88.1 FM). He’s met and played with some of the great blues performers including Louisiana Red, Homesick James and Robert Lockwood. Locally he played with Silvercloud, Oliver Sain and Johnnie Johnson and spent 22 years with the patriarch of St. Louis bluesmen, Henry Townsend. He once opened for Count Basie. But there’s no denying his third passion is the University of Missouri–St. Louis

Edwards’ last official duty at UMSL was setting up the sound system and slide show for his own party. Hundreds of people were on hand to wish him well. A look around the room said a lot about the man.

Vince Schoemehl, president and CEO of Grand Center and former mayor of St. Louis, has known Edwards since they were both UMSL students in the mid-1960s.

“I’ve known him for 45 years and I’ve never seen him clean shaven,” said Schoemehl who made sure he congratulated Edwards in person. The two men led anti-Vietnam War efforts at UMSL in the 1960s and have remained friends

Blanche Touhill, chancellor emeritus, and UMSL’s current chancellor Tom George were both on hand to sing Edwards’ praises. Edwards told the crowd he knew every chancellor in UMSL’s history.

“Ron showed me how to use the microphone, just so,” said Touhill, as she tilted her head. “And he always said to look for him as soon as I started speaking. He would nod and let me know it sounded okay.” She then “talked from her heart” and said if there were a staff version of the University of Missouri System’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award, Edwards would receive it.

“It’s awarded to an individual who through personal influence and performance of duty, character and influence, devotion and loyalty to the university best exemplifies the principles and ideals of Thomas Jefferson. That’s Ron Edwards,” said Touhill.

It wouldn’t be a Ron Edwards party unless there was music.

Chancellor George, an accomplished jazz musician, played a duet with Edwards. George on piano playing a jazz version of the 1964 hit “Green Onions,” and Edwards on slide guitar playing “Help Me,” recorded in 1963.

George told the story of a ride down Market Street on the UMSL float in one of the many parades the university participates in. Edwards was coordinator for all parades and ran the onsite operations. Once and only once did he agree to perform with George on the float.

“We selected five songs to play,” said George. “It was a particularly large and slow-moving parade and we must have played those songs 15 times before it was over.”

George called Edwards “a real treasure.” A fitting tribute to a man who likes to tell people, “I knew UMSL before it was UMSL.”

Edwards grew up in north St. Louis County, attended Normandy schools and arrived at UMSL as a freshman in 1966.

“This was a pretty conservative place in those days. I think I was the only one on campus with a mustache,” he said. “I started working in the art department in 1970 as a photographer and academic assistant under Jean Tucker.”

It was a part-time position that fit into his interests at the time. He built the first darkroom in the art department and created more than 30,000 slides, which provided the foundation for art history lectures.

In 1975 Edwards was offered a position in University Center. He built and operated another darkroom and expanded the audiovisual program on campus. He taught CE photography classes for Continuing Education. And has connected AV equipment from the smallest event, to gatherings of world leaders.

“Who do you go to when the ‘go-to guy’ retires?”, said Mike Murray, professor of media studies and chair of the Faculty Senate.

Edwards said his legacy will live on. Standing front and center at the retirement party was a group of eight to 10 young men, the night managers and AV guys.

“I’ve always been here for the students,” said Edwards. “Their enthusiasm and energy has invigorated me. And I want everyone to know, the last guy I hired was James Edwards, my son.”

Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel

Eye on UMSL: Walk about

Oluchi Onyegbula, a psychology major and co-president of the Able-Disable Partnership, leads an accessibility walk Thursday on the UMSL campus.