If you spend much time around the Brownwood High School band, you’ll likely encounter the smiling, animated man band members refer to as the “band’s No. 1 fan.”
He’s 56-year-old Ronnie Laird, and Laird can’t hear a note of the music the band plays. Laird is deaf, but he feels the vibration from the music. And band members and band directors David and Lesley Lambert have no trouble communicating with Laird — by gestures and informal sign language, smiles and hugs, and sometimes by writing.
The Lamberts became aware of Laird during the summer of 2012, when band practice was under way for what would be their first year in the Brownwood school district. They noticed Laird, who traveled by bicycle and seemed to have a great appreciation for the band.
“That’s the band’s No. 1 fan,” a band member told the Lamberts.
They learned Laird is deaf, and they learned from principal Bill Faircloth that Laird was a trustworthy man who was known to the school. Faircloth blessed Laird’s presence around the band. And Faircloth had good reason to know: Faircloth’s wife, Suzanne, and Laird are cousins.
The Lamberts reached out to Laird, who, they discovered, was very intelligent and an extremely good worker, volunteering to help out with behind-the-scenes tasks.
“You all are his second parents,” Laird’s sister, Pam Mann, told the Lamberts in David Lambert’s office just off the band hall, where the Lamberts, Laird and his sister gathered to tell Laird’s story.
“He wants to fit in and live life, and he’s living life through the band.”
Laird is so helpful, David Lambert said, it’s like having anothr band director. “I’ve never had anybody like Ronnie,” Lambert said. “He’s unique. He’s very helpful and we’re glad to have him.”
Laird “is just a fixture in the band hall,” Lesley Lambert said.
Although Laird couldn’t hear the conversation that day in Lambert’s office, he knew the conversation was about him. His sister told his life’s story.
Pam’s and Ronnie’s parents were Willie and Frances Laird. Their grandfather was former Howard Payne University president Dr. Thomas Taylor. Their father, Willie, was the longtime produce manager at the JRB grocery store at Coggin and Austin.
Ronnie wasn’t born deaf. But at age 3 months — just before he would’ve been taken in for a pertussis, or whooping cough, immunization ? Ronnie was exposed to someone who had the disease.
Ronnie caught it and lost his hearing.
“Mom always blamed herself,” Mann said. “She said ‘I should’ve gotten him in sooner ...”
Ronnie was 8 when, with the assistance of Groner Pitts, the family got him enrolled at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. Ronnie learned sign language, but modern sign language is different from the version he learned, Mann said.
Ronnie got sick, though, and had to leave school before graduating.
In the meantime he’d developed a love of bands and parades — “ever since he was little,” Mann said.
Laird lives alone in an apartment in a neighborhood where he’s well known and rides around on his bicycle. Since he can’t hear a doorbell or knocking on his door, the resourceful Laird rigged up a system in which a visitor flips a switch outside the door, and it causes lights to flash on in every room, letting Laird know he has a visitor.
Laird has had a couple of jobs including working at the bowling alley and at Pizza Hut, but he’s not working now because he had prostate cancer and surgery, Mann said.
Laird also became a Texas Tech football fan because his nephew — Mann’s son, Keith Shields, who played football as a Brownwood Lion in the 1980s — also played football as a Red Raider.
“He’s a big-time Brownwood Lions and Texas Tech (fan),” Mann said.
Before the Lamberts arrived in Brownwood, Laird was already known to the Brownwood High School band. But “you all are the ones who took him in,” Mann told the Lamberts.
During the marching band season, Laird is with the band for practice nearly every day, finding ways to be helpful, the Lamberts said.
During concert season, he comes less often because there isn’t as much for him to do.
Laird learned to be diligent and detail-oriented from the example of their father, Mann said.
“This is a dream for him,” Mann said. “He never got to be in the band. He never got to play football.”
Getting a hug from a band member, Mann said, is “like giving him $50.”