I’ve talked so much about myself—I want to talk about Pete for a while. It occurred to me recently that I am upset when people won’t talk about Pete, and I realized that I haven’t even talked about him that much. There would have to be something very special about a man whose death could bring me to my knees. You may not want to hear me rhapsodize about my husband (if so, stop here), but I think that those of you who knew of Pete might appreciate my insight, and those of you who never met Pete or experienced his music or saw him on stage, you may gain a better sense for the gap that he’s left.
Let’s start with Pete as a stepfather to my “kids,” Sean and James Della Croce. They are adults now but when we got married my son was in junior high and my daughter was a freshman in high school. He always understood that his place was as stepdad and not dad. He’d known them since they were quite young, and he could appreciate their essence—how they were alike, and how they were very different. He grew to love them, but he more importantly really liked them. He didn’t care for them just because he had to if he wanted to marry their mom, but because they were kind and loving and smart and fun to be with. Music was often their connection. As a singer/songwriter Sean would come to Pete for advice on guitar and melody. In fact, he produced her first album. James is a percussionist, and Pete and I traveled around the country to most of his drumline competitions. For 10 years Pete was able to cast a positive influence over them that I hope will last the rest of their lives.
As I mentioned in “Dear Mrs. Huttlinger” Pete had an enormous sense of humor. We laughed and laughed throughout our relationship. We were on equal footing there—catching each other off guard with one-liners, sarcasm, slapstick, play-on-words, all of it. We grew up in the same era of great television, with some of the best comedy of the 70’s. Once, he told me that I was a combination of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, which I considered the highest of compliments. In fact, in my goofier moments, he often called me “Lucy.” Our connection with humor helped us laugh through some of our most stressful times. Pete had a defibrillator implanted for several years, and when he was on stage he would joke that he had it “set on stun!” before he’d play a blindingly fast tune. “If I fly backwards off this stage, don’t be alarmed, it’s just my defibrillator going off.” It’s how we dealt with it.
Pete had a great appreciation for everything that flowed through his day. He wasn’t Mr. Zen all the time, but generally he enjoyed the smallest of things—spending time in his studio, playing his guitar, driving for hours to gigs, going to the post office, etc. Sometimes he’d come to the grocery store with me. My Type-A side would want to split the grocery list, rush in two different directions and see how fast we could complete the task. He’d just look at me and say, “I just want to hang with you.” It always stopped me in my tracks, and I’d think “Erin, you are an idiot. This guy just wants to spend time with you, and you’re dispatching him to the dairy section.”
As a musician and performer, well, there’s enough on the internet and YouTube that I don’t have to go into full PR mode and sing all his praises. I would just like to say that his talent was unique. He was gifted as a musician. He didn’t like it when I’d refer to him professionally as a “virtuoso.” I think he thought it was too lofty, but I felt it was appropriate. That said, he did like it when he was once referred to as a “guitar sensei.” When Pete asked me to marry him, I didn’t hesitate to point out that marrying your manager was pretty cliché in show business. He often told people that he thought marrying me would save him his 15% commission, but he soon found out he’d just lost the other 85%. To offset the wife/manager balance, Pete, on occasion, would fire me. Generally after a particularly cruddy gig, or if something I had pushed him to do went horribly wrong (it happens). I would just tell him “I do not accept.” He was never serious about it—it was kind of a joke—but also his way of letting me know that he never wanted to do that particular thing again. I always got the point.
I never tired of hearing him play, nor will I ever.
He loved to cook. He loved to speak with a fake Irish brogue. He loved to talk to his Japanese Maple and Dogwood trees. He loved working in the yard. He longed to have a big garden (summer touring prohibited that). He loved his huge family. He loved to fly fish. He loved traveling—everywhere. He loved meeting new people and turning them into new friends.
There wasn’t one instance when I walked into a room and he didn’t look up at me and smile. Sometimes a sweet smile with his “big brown Huttlinger eyes,” as he referred to them, and sometimes it was a huge Cheshire grin. Pete treated me like a treasure. Like something he stumbled upon and didn’t expect. He appreciated me and would often tell me so, including the night before he went into the hospital for the last time. He tearfully looked at me and said, “How did I get so lucky?” Oh, the irony.
This is a song that Pete only did once or twice live—there just wasn’t enough room in the repertoire. I’ve always loved it and it says a lot about his perspective. It's titled "The Wish."
Is it time to appreciate someone in your life before they’re gone?