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The Essex County 4 sings at the memorial service for Jean Melzar, who died at Care Dimensions' Kaplan Family Hospice House.
The Essex County 4 sings at the memorial service for Jean Melzar, who died at Care Dimensions' Kaplan Family Hospice House.

Paying it Forward Through Gift of Music

Posted on December 16, 2021 by Lisa Conti

The Essex County 4, a barbershop quartet, often has serenaded patients, families, and staff members at Care Dimensions’ Kaplan Family Hospice House. When a colleague, Jack Dowd, was receiving care there in August, the quartet sang to him from the patio outside his room. Little did they know how many lives they would touch that day.

In the room next door, Victoria Maxwell and her brother, Steven Melzar, were with their mother, Jean Melzar, who was nearing the end of her life after nearly three years of struggling with advanced congestive heart failure. Jean’s patio door also was open, and the quartet’s songs floated into her room.

Those four harmonious voices – intended for Jack in honor of his long-time friendship and support of the quartet – were the last sounds Jean heard and deeply moved Victoria and Steven.

“To our surprise, a group turned up next door for Jack Dowd,” recalls Steven. “They started singing and we were enjoying it. It was like Mom was being serenaded.” The quartet sang four songs and finished with “From the First Hello to the Last Goodbye.”

“Since this song was the last thing we heard before Mom passed, we thought we should find out who they were,” says Victoria. “We wanted to have them at the memorial service so everyone could hear what Mom and we heard.”

Hospice connected quartet to family

The hospice house receptionist connected Steven and Victoria with the quartet’s leader, Steve O’Connell. “I was taken aback when I received the phone call from Victoria, asking us to sing at her mom's service,” O’Connell remembers. “We had no idea when we were singing to Jack outside his room that others were listening.”   

Jack Dowd’s love of music made the connection possible. For many years, he belonged to the Beverly Northshoremen Chorus, as do the quartet’s members. Jack served in several leadership positions, including Chapter President and Music Director.

“Jack was always working hard to make us better,” says O’Connell. “When I first joined the chorus 11 years ago and heard his quartet, the Village Voices, I said to myself, ‘That's what I want to do.’ They had a wonderful blend of harmony and were inspiring to me. Jack was always very supportive of me and all the members of the chorus.” 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Essex County 4 sang at the Kaplan House for several years on Valentine's Day. “The quartet’s appearances at the Kaplan House provide the patients and their families a sense of peace and comfort as well as for us,” says Irwin Cohen, the group’s bass singer. “Also, for me we are doing a ‘Mitzvah,’ a blessed thing.”

“We are thrilled to bring whatever musical gifts we can to the patients and their family members,” adds O’Connell, whose uncle, stepfather, and cousin received hospice care at the Kaplan House. “It's truly humbling.” 

Victoria recalls her conversation with O’Connell later in the day Jean Melzar died. “We wanted to know which songs the quartet sang,” Victoria says. Knowing that their mother would not have wanted a standard memorial service, Victoria and Steven thought having The Essex County 4 replicate their performance from that August day at Kaplan House would be a perfect fit.

A gift to support hospice patients, families

The quartet accepted the invitation and asked that their fee be donated to Care Dimensions in memory of Jack Dowd and Jean Melzar.

“We felt that any honorarium should be sent to the Kaplan House to help support their patients and their families, which is more important than us,” says Cohen.

“One of our edicts as barbershoppers is to give back to the community, and certainly this was a way to do that,” notes O’Connell.

On September 22, the quartet, perched in the balcony at the First Church Congregational in Boxford for Jean Melzar’s memorial service, performed the same songs that they had sung at the Kaplan House on August 2. In addition, O’Connell played guitar and sang “Amazing Grace.” After the church service, the quartet sang “From the First Hello to the Last Goodbye” once more at the graveside service in a nearby cemetery where Jean Melzar had volunteered for many years.

“Everyone mentioned how wonderful it was to have The Essex County 4 there,” says Victoria. “Mom would have so enjoyed it.”  

“Had the quartet not shown up at Kaplan House that day, we would not have thought about having them sing at our mom’s memorial service,” says Steven. “It really left a lasting impression.”

When informed about how much Jean Melzar’s family and friends appreciated the quartet, Jack Dowd’s son, John Dowd, reflected, “I’m glad that my dad’s love of music gave some solace to another family.”

Watch video of the quartet at Jean Melzar’s memorial service:

Members of The Essex County 4 are: Steve O'Connell (lead); Michael Klein (tenor); Irwin Cohen (bass); and Charles Coogan (baritone). For more information, email Steve O’Connell at [email protected].  

About the author
Lisa Conti is Senior Marketing Communications Specialist for Care Dimensions and manages its Voices of Care blog.

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