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Master of Arts

November 11, 2000

Sharon Donovan
Michael DeMocker

A symphony of contradictions: He doesn't look much like a musician--the hands are rather large, tipped with thick fingers, not the nimble digits one might think necessary to conquer a delicate ancient instrument. Although a college professor, he doesn't behave much like one--in fact, he assigns concerts and museum tours in lieu of the traditional "homework." Magician? A pack of cards is an ever-ready accessory.

There's more: linguist, historian, calligrapher. Milton G. Scheuermann Jr. [A '56] pursues each one of these endeavors with intensity and passion, as if each were his singular interest If it is possible to get close these days to the 16th-century ideal, Scheuermann, 67, is a Renaissance man.

On the academic front, his "day job" as an adjunct professor in the Tulane University School of Architecture and architectural historian and archivist at Dillard University places him squarely in the classroom, detailing for students the disciplines of graphics, 3-D representation, photography, calligraphy and first-year design.

But his worlds revolve around such paradoxical galaxies as magic, art, music and on-stage performance. Not to mention being a hip radio DJ of early music. His wide face is a map of soft creases that march into rigid crevices when he musters one of his frequent, broad smiles. The laugh that follows is downright mischievous. As to who enjoys the punchline more--the joker or the jokee--would be a hard call, but rest assured Milton G. Scheuermann is as amused as he is bemused.

There's no pigeonholing Scheuermann, no matter how much one might wrestle to tame a view of who he really is. While an early affinity for drawing lured him into architecture, that same affinity drove him to learn German--on his own. Then magic--on his own. Calligraphy--on his own. Building early musical instruments--on his own. Accomplished in many realms, each one is fueled by two of what he considers life's most important building blocks: wonder and whimsy.

Sure, he's intellectually agile, philosophically curious--but the quality he appreciates most is humor. And students these days are operating in a deficit of that commodity, he believes. "They're too serious. Sometimes they act like stiff old fogies," he quips. "They're afraid to have fun. Most have no common sense--which you cannot teach. They're not nearly as imaginative as they should be--I'm never sure I get through to them.'"

While students today appear to be dedicated, he says their focus tends to be only on a particular niche of architecture and, for the most part, their interests seem to extend only so far as the grade in the course.

"There is so much more to architecture," he says. "There's an interdisciplinary aspect to which literature and art all relate."

Scheuermann's remedy is to make assignments such as attending concerts in philharmonic halls and art openings in museums in order for the students to understand how the buildings relate to the music and art they were built to showcase.

If Scheuermann had his way, the students would be learning the material on their own, out of natural curiosity--in much the same way he has mastered most of his endeavors. His own penchant for thinking outside the box and taking a non-conventional route dates back as least as far as when he was a youngster dutifully taking piano lessons in his native New Orleans.

Once the eight free introductory lessons elapsed, his mother opted to try another teacher rather than stick with the predictable, droning one she feared could dampen the playful spirit of music. She sought out a well-known professional musician who played at the Fountain Lounge in what was then the Roosevelt Hotel (now the Fairmont), who entertained luncheon and tea-time guests with popular tunes. That energy fueled young Scheuermann's weekly piano lessons, too, as well as prompting mother-son excursions to hear the teacher play to an enthusiastic audience.

After graduating from Warren Easton High School, where he was a standout debater, winning awards in oratorical contests, Scheuermann entered Tulane to pursue architecture on a scholarship. One of his favorite professors turned out to be a mentor in many ways.

Professor John Herndon Thomson (who also served as dean) was perhaps Scheuermann's first impression of a modern Renaissance man. "He had so many interests," Scheuermann recalls, his sense of awe still fresh after all these years.

A member of the Tulane faculty since 1959, Scheuermann often reflects on some of his own professors and their ways of dealing with students. A favorite was Professor Herbert Levy, whose system of monitoring students' attendance amuses Scheuermann even today.

"A stickler for punctuality, he would look out the window and watch students running across campus racing to his 8 a.m. class and mutter, 'They'll never make it.' Then at the stroke of 8 a.m. by his pocketwatch, he would go to the door and lock it from the inside."

A partial pedigree of musicians in the family tree might be at least one clue to Scheuermann's affinity for music. His grandmother composed ragtime and played piano to accompany movies before "talkies" outdated the job. An uncle, who worked as a draftsman for an oil company by day, was a saxophone player by night--and the image of him primping elegantly in a tuxedo before a performance was not lost on the showman Scheuermann was to become.

"Oh, he was pretty nifty," Scheuermann says fondly. In fact, music seemed so much a part of his mother's family scene that "I thought it was commonplace," he recalls. "I assumed every household revolved around music." A grandfather who worked for the railroad made a lasting impression too, as he puttered around the house with his hand tools. "I was mystified by their shapes and what could be done with them," Scheuermann says. "I guess I secretly hoped to get my hands on them one day." Which he did.

They are among the hundred or so tools in Scheuermann's own workshop, alongside some modern power tools--all part of the arsenal he maintains to coax, carve, shave and shape early musical instruments into life in the 21st century. Some of the instruments, such as the replica of a 1642 harpsichord by Andres Ruckers of Antwerp, Belgium, have taken as long as seven months to recreate, including the decorative hand-painted flowers.

Others, such as a vielle, or medieval fiddle, he can knock out in a few weeks. Not content with merely making instruments, Scheuermann has literally also created a musical stage on which to showcase them. Now in its 35th season, Musica da Camera is an internationally known ensemble that Scheuermann founded and now co-directs with Thais St. Julien, a library technician in the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library's Maxwell Music Library.

The group, which comprises up to seven musicians at any given performance, focuses on medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music composed from the years 1000 to 1600--quite a stretch for musicians in a city known for its jazz and rhythm-and-blues. The troubadours' ballads, love songs and hymns reflect the musical heritage of regions that are now France, Spain, Germany and Italy. And, naturally, finding the music--and reconstructing the lyrics, much less the instruments--is no easy task.

That suits Scheuermann, who has built dozens of the instruments based on existing antiques or illuminations in books. Sometimes the reference is even more obscure, like a chunk of a stone carving that inspired him to build a small harp based on a 12th-century carving of Portico de la Gloria of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. His other reconstructions--several harpsichords, medieval fiddles, reed organs, hammer dulcimers and psalteries--are often brought into musical service during the Musica da Camera concert season, which runs from October to April.

But Scheuermann's musical interests are not confined to seasons. The group has produced five CDs, and he co-hosts with St. Julien a weekly radio show of early music, "Continuum," which airs at 4 p.m. Sundays on WWNO in New Orleans. Even with his arsenal so full, Scheuermann also still collects tools.

A recent acquisition of a circa 1925 wood plane from an Internet site specifically showcasing antique tools netted a much-appreciated weapon that can "split hairs," he brags of his new toy's attributes as he joyfully anticipates how it will fit into his workbench lineup.

While Scheuermann's neat-as-a-pin living room in his Uptown New Orleans double-shotgun home does not look like a shopaholic's hideout, he admits he has difficulty resisting a bargain for any one of his range of interests, some not at all predictable. A tidy brown bear suited up in a Harrod's Department Store outfit and perched on a chair looks a bit out of place among the museum-quality array of his reproductions of musical instruments, but that's vintage Scheuermann: off-beat and full of surprises.

For a man with such refined tastes, a penchant for stuffed animals seems somehow out of sync. But the bear is among a closet collection of from 30 to 40 stuffed animals that recently expanded when, during a tour of Wal-Mart, he spotted a five-foot-long rainbow trout in dazzling shades of fake fur--on sale.

Passing up a stuffed shark, he grabbed the trout for $12.95 with as much relish as if it were a trophy freshly fished from the Gulf. "I just had to have it," he says with a bemused expression, somewhat at a loss for words to explain his behavior to even himself.

Born on Mardi Gras Day in 1933 and raised in New Orleans, Scheuermann is the only child of a homemaker and a telephone company executive, parents who must have lavished attention on their progeny.

"They were careful about not overdoing it," he says, trying to review his upbringing objectively, but soon dissolves into conceding, "I guess you could say I didn't lack for anything. They fully supported whatever I did."

Including showcasing for months his student intern project-in-progress as he constructed a 4-by-8-foot plywood model in the middle of the family living room.

Instead of shooing him to his room, they invited the neighbors in to watch how it took shape. It turned out to be a fairly visible project on a citywide scale, too--the model was of New Orleans' Moisant Field, the airport that Scheuermann's employers, the architectural firm of Goldstein, Parham & Labouisse, designed in the 1950s. Scheuermann joined the firm as a draftsman in 1954 and returned to work for the firm after serving for three years with the combat engineers in Germany as an architect from 1956 to 1958.

Much of his architectural work revolved around the design of Dillard University and, in 1972, he became the university's managing architect. Through his tenure, he has overseen additions to the residence halls, student union, president's residence and administration building. He also has helped shepherd a 20-year master plan.

He is currently archiving the architectural plans, photographs and original drawings to showcase the 1933-96 period. Despite the complexity and broad range of his interests, Scheuermann is in many ways a man of simple tastes.

This know-all, do-all kind of guy could dine seven nights a week on simple red beans and rice if his wife of 40 years, Margie, a retired real estate agent, could stomach it. "I never liked it as a child," he says. "My mother would make it every Monday, and I can remember looking at my plate and wondering how I would finish it all." But the simplicity of the dish suits his taste. The ingredients are straightforward and unfussy--just like Scheuermann.

Same theory in picking his favorite piece of music: Wagner's only comic opera, Die Meistersinger. But of the five hours, the most precious note is the opening C-major chord. "It's the most perfect C-major chord ever written, and I still get a chill and a tear whenever I hear it," Scheuermann says. So much fills his days and nights that Scheuermann fortunately can get along on as little as four hours of sleep a night. "I'm never idle," he says with an ironic twinkle.

How does a Renaissance man survive in the modern culture? "Oh, it just means you have the capability of doing things that are interrelated to each other. You can do everything, perhaps not especially well, but at least with a passable competency. At least, you try."

Sharon Donovan is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Tulanian.


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