One day back in 1988, local musician Bob Rowe opened his mailbox to find a yellowed envelope addressed from India with type that was obviously composed on a non-electric typewriter. One thought came to mind: “Could this be …?”
And indeed it was what he thought. As Rowe has recounted to reporters many times over the years, the letter was from Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner known for her work with the poor in India as founder of Missionaries of Charity. She was responding to a letter he’d written to her seeking her insight about his outreach to the elderly via Renaissance Enterprises. He had founded that local nonprofit organization earlier that same year to bring music and arts programs to residents of nursing homes, senior apartments and other institutions.
“I poured my heart out,” Rowe says of his letter to Mother Teresa. “I kind of forgot about it and wasn’t expecting a response.”
But then, two months later, there it was — an envelope from across the globe sitting inside his mailbox from none other than the woman herself. It sparked an ongoing correspondence between Rowe and Mother Teresa. Rowe sent photographs of himself and other artists performing in nursing homes, and Mother Teresa would return the pictures with handwritten notes attached. She also wrote Rowe letters filled with reinforcing and supportive words, he says.
“Mother Teresa did what I needed most of all, to make me feel special and good about what I was doing,” Rowe says. “She didn’t tell me, ‘Do this differently and that differently;’ she just told me that what I did mattered. That I should be grateful for my gifts, cherish them, and continue to use them in the service of God and the world.”
Renaissance Enterprises now offers more than 150 music and arts programs to the elderly in Kalamazoo, Berrien, Calhoun, Ingham and Kent counties. It has 30 professional entertainers on its roster, some performing every week (such as the Michigan Country Music Hall of Fame band The Green Valley Boys) and others when their schedules permit.
‘A real connection’
Rowe was 32 when he launched Renaissance Enterprises, but his heart for the elderly and his ministry to them began much earlier. At 15, after receiving his first paycheck from working at his parents’ hardware store, Gordon’s Hardware, in Battle Creek, Rowe purchased a guitar at nearby Grinnell’s Music store. With his background playing the piano and pipe organ, learning the chords on a guitar came easy, he says. Around that time, the nuns and priests at St. Philip Catholic Central High School in Battle Creek, which Rowe attended, took him to visit the elderly in nursing homes, and he played songs for them like “You Are My Sunshine.”
“I could see it really was a real connection with myself and the music and the elderly person,” Rowe says.
His parents, Robert F. and Mary Lou Rowe, longtime owners of Nelson Hardware of Portage (which is still in the Rowe family), also influenced his career with their love of music and their generosity. They introduced Bob to folk music, taught him to live out his faith and believed in service and putting others first, he says.
“It was kind of a natural when the priests and nuns started taking me around to the shut-ins in the nursing homes,” he says. “I found an immediate way I could use my gifts as a musician to help others.”
When Rowe launched his music career immediately after graduating from high school — he has recorded more than 20 albums (Higher Ground was released in 2017); has appeared on regional and national television networks; and has published hundreds of songs, poetry compilations, songbooks and other publications — he started out playing in nightclubs and traveled around the world with an agent.
Following his performances, Rowe would seek out a local nursing home in each city and give a free program. But after 15 years, he grew tired of playing nightclubs and living his life on the road and desired something more fulfilling spiritually.
“That’s when I got the idea to formulate a nonprofit organization,” Rowe says. “I got to thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing this for all these years and I can see a huge need.’ There are thousands of elderly people in homes all over the country. I was totally convinced of what music did to change their lives. People with Alzheimer’s couldn’t remember their name, but they’d start singing a song word for word.”
The fun part for Rowe was, and still is, finding high-quality musicians. Having been in the music industry for so long, he always finds top-notch artists who also have a passion for the elderly.
“It was fun trying to get people I thought would have a heart for the elderly and would have the right musical approach to connect with that audience,” he says.
The difficult part was that initial fundraising. When Rowe approached Russ Gabier, then a trustee of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, with the idea for Renaissance Enterprises, Gabier was immediately intrigued, Rowe says. He advised Rowe to go through the steps to form a nonprofit and promised to give Renaissance Enterprises its first grant money. But getting more sponsors in those early years was tough, Rowe admits, because of a couple factors — the country’s focus on youth and his untried nonprofit model.
“We’re one of only a handful of organizations in the entire country, even now, that do this type of work,” Rowe says, “so I had to beg.”
Rowe laughs and adds, “I was — and still am — a pretty tenacious person.”
His persistence paid off. Rowe receives financial support from local arts councils, businesses and charitable foundations such as the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, and DENSO Manufacturing Michigan Inc.
Contributors recognize the nonprofit is not a “fly by night” organization, he says. It also helps that in 2006 Rowe received the Mother Teresa Laureate award from the St. Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art for “work and dedication to beautifying the world by bringing music and the arts to our nation’s forgotten elderly.” Past laureates include the Rev. Billy Graham and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Strikes a chord
Even with the growing financial support, Renaissance Enterprises receives more requests for programs than can be funded. If an organization rejects Rowe’s request for funding, he takes it to heart. “It’s not about me,” but it’s crushing when a funder declines to support an effort that can bring someone joy, he says.
And Rowe witnesses residents’ joy during every performance, he says, routinely seeing elderly residents who are curled up or slumped down in wheelchairs light up when the music plays. Music, he says, also initiates socialization between residents who might not otherwise engage in conversation.
He estimates Renaissance Enterprises touches 12,000 people per year with its programs. With many nursing homes, Renaissance has established regular days and times each week to bring the elderly music, but Rowe would still like to see growth in the number of people served.
“It’s tear-jerking just to think that a little effort like going in and playing a tune makes a difference in somebody’s life,” he says.
Rowe calls the epiphany he had 30 years ago to combine his passion for music with helping the elderly a “light bulb moment.” Since experiencing that moment, he has graced the pages of publications such as Time magazine and has appeared on PBS, but he shrugs off the attention and accolades.
“I found a way to do good for humanity and still be a musician that isn’t just focused on me getting applause and money.”