Midvale man leads transformative music program at the state prison for over a decade
Jan 28, 2020 02:16PM
● By Sarah Morton Taggart
David Aguirre (right) looks over music arranged by Kirby Heyborne while filming an episode of “Making Good” for BYUtv. (Photo courtesy Greg Kiefer/Cosmic Pictures)
By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]
David Aguirre is a retired financial planner who began volunteering at the prison with his wife, Mary, as part of a church activity. They went to the prison twice a month on Monday evenings to give lessons. One day they had an opportunity to see some inmates perform a concert and were told the music program was going to shut down because there wasn’t a volunteer to run it.
So Aguirre decided that he would be that volunteer. A few years earlier he was given a terminal cancer diagnosis and told he had two more years at best.
That was 18 years ago.
“I came in for a day or two a week to help them,” Aguirre said. “It meant so much to them to play music and get away from the (prison) block. I thought if Mary and I could do something, then we should. Our business allowed us retirement so we could come more and more. We came every day at one point.”
Mary taught inmates how to crochet while David kept the music program going.
“Initially, it was just being there, supervising,” said Aguirre. “If I was late or didn’t show up, there was no music school.”
Some inmates had musical experience coming in. One was even a high school band director.
One inmate known as Solomon played nothing at first, but learned the guitar by ear.
“Now he teaches others,” Aguirre said. “I think that’s one of the reasons our school has had success while others have not. We implemented a tutoring program and the instruction is turned over to the inmates. Ron Green was a master musician, and he set up the school. I had more time (to volunteer) so we were a good pair.”
On Dec. 19, friends and neighbors gathered at an LDS chapel in Midvale to watch a tribute to David and Mary’s labor of love. A year earlier their neighbor, Gordon Huston, filmed them for a BYUtv series called “Making Good.” Huston got special permission to screen the episode and host Kirby Heyborne and producer Ron Johnson were in the audience of around 30 people.
Each episode of “Making Good” features a group or individual doing good in the world, seen through the eyes of Heyborne. This episode follows him as he visits the prison to meet Aguirre and the inmates in the music program. At one point Heyborne asks Aguirre what keeps him going and he responds without hesitation.
“Mary. I’ve done one thing in this world that I’ve done really well and that’s convince her to marry me. There’s a saying here that ‘Dave brings the law, so you gotta be careful when he comes. But Mary brings the light.’ And she really does.”
“When Dave said that about Mary it made us change the script,” Heyborne said. “It wasn’t just a Christmas story in prison, it was a love story.”
“(The inmates) still talk about the crew coming,” Aguirre said. “Kirby and the crew treated them as people. Treated them as sons of our Father in Heaven. That really came through.” The full episode, titled “Christmas Special,” can be viewed at byutv.org/makinggood.
After the screening David and Mary took questions about their experiences at the prison.
“As the gate in front of you opens, the one behind you slams shut,” Aguirre said. “The first time I went in I looked at the green tile floor, the ‘Green Mile.’ Then you see the inmates. Some are pretty scary, with these elaborate tattoos they give to each other. But then they start to cry when they talk to you about what they’ve done.”
“When we first started, they gave me a radio (to call for help if needed) and keys to the chapel. We were on our own. At first it was very frightening. There was a riot (before I began volunteering) where the inmates took over and demanded a chapel. The riot left some walls with bullet holes. You see those, and it’s eerie. I’ve seen fights, I’ve seen blood.”
At this point, Heyborne interrupted. “You’re not really selling the volunteer experience.”
Aguirre laughed and went on. “During a riot the prisoners will protect the volunteers. If they don’t, they know the program will go away. And they have a guard there with the volunteers now. Volunteering at the prison is something you’ll never forget. You’ll feel the spirit. I’ll even compare it with the temple.”
Aguirre already recruited a very impactful volunteer several years ago. He invited Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, to lead a one-time lesson. Wilberg called Aguirre back a week later and asked if he could do more.
“He now comes in four or five times a month and arranges some Tabernacle Choir practices around his prison commitments,” said Aguirre. “The prison choir is made up of petty thieves and mass murderers, but Mack treats them no differently than his singers in the Tabernacle Choir. He doesn’t care what you did, but you have to be willing to work.”
“Yes, they did horrible things,” Aguirre said. “They know that more than anyone. But they’ve changed their lives on the inside.”
One inmate, known as Big Ron, has had a significant impact on the program. “He can’t undo what he did when he was 18, but he can change lives now,” said Aguirre. “He’s earned two degrees (while in prison) and now teaches other inmates.”
Someone commented that it must have been brave for them to learn new instruments and be so vulnerable while performing in front of other inmates at the recital. “The other inmates support them,” said Aguirre. “Some will hurt your ears, but others will make you say holy cow, where did that come from?”
The program began with just guitars available for the inmates to play. It has expanded to include vocal instruction and instruments ranging from trumpets to violins to banjos.
“I tell people I have no music skills,” said Aguirre. “But Mary has seen how much music I’ve been able to pick up at the prison. The guitar, all of the saxophones, the stand up bass. I didn’t have those skills when we started. But then an inmate said why don’t we teach you how to play?”
Other inmates are tougher to work with. “Just one time I turned someone away,” said Aguirre. “I just couldn’t work with him. What he’d done hit too close to home. Others will try to play you.”
“This movie makes it look easy, but it’s not,” said Mary Aguirre. “In some ways it’s like my favorite church calling. It’s like working in the nursery, but with bigger bodies.”
The Aguirres no longer get to the prison as much as they’d like. They still own their home in Midvale, but have relocated to St. George most of the year for David’s health. He believes it has improved his health, but he misses the program. He turned the role of director over to his former assistant in December.
“It’s very hard to see the impact, then turn your back on it,” Aguirre said. “Not that we were anything special. But we were there, and that’s the important thing.”