A room on the top level of Mark Munson's Brainerd home-situated at the highest point in Crow Wing County-is where the music happens.
A guitar collection hangs on the walls, amps in matching cases fill shelves and a dozen or so handmade cajón drums are stacked near the floor. Natural sunlight streamed through the windows and skylights as Munson began to strum his acoustic guitar Thursday.
"Don't let the sun catch you cryin'," he sang. "The night's the time for all your tears/Your heart may be broken tonight/But tomorrow in the morning light/Don't let the sun catch you cryin'."
Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Munson has reason to shed a few tears. But the retired chiropractor and lifelong musician-not to mention woodworker, sailor and bass angler-said he's at peace in his final days.
"I retired 16 years ago," he said. "And that's why I'm OK with this. I've done everything in the world in those 16 years. Most people won't retire until they're 65. I just turned 65."
"I retired 16 years ago," he said. "And that's why I'm OK with this. I've done everything in the world in those 16 years." - Mark Munson, retired chiropractor and lifelong musician
Between regular chemotherapy sessions, Munson continues his hobbies with fervor and in just the last month, has thrown himself into ensuring his passion for music lives on in future generations. In conjunction with The Crossing Arts Alliance, an arts nonprofit based in the Franklin Arts Center, Munson's dream is to establish a rock music summer camp for Brainerd area teens. And he's kicking off the effort in his own way-with a "celebration of life" party June 12, where his band Rockin' Hill will release its most recent album and funds will be raised for the camp.
"Music is something that once you learn it, you can take it all the way to retirement," Munson said.
The idea for the Mark Munson Memorial School of Rock evolved from the desire of The Crossing Arts Alliance board of directors to honor Munson, who served more than a decade on the board himself. Initially, a scholarship was planned, but Jon Luhrs of Bridge of Harmony remembered Munson's admiration of the "school of rock" concept.
"He (Luhrs) said, 'Why don't we start a school of rock in his name?" Munson said. "Everybody that I talk to about it is excited."
The camps began popping up all over the United States in the wake of the 2003 film "School of Rock," which told the story of a rocker recently kicked out of his band (Jack Black) who formed a band of fourth-graders to enter a battle of bands after disguising himself as a substitute teacher. They typically run for two weeks and participants in sixth through 12th grades are placed into individual rock bands and learn songs together. The camp culminates in a concert, when the new bands show off what they've learned.
Munson's a believer in the concept after watching his own grandson transform through a camp experience.
Two years ago, Munson said his grandson Wyatt was a shy kid with few friends who spent much of his time playing video games alone in his room. Wyatt visited Munson and wife Barb's home and Munson encouraged Wyatt to take home one of his guitars. Wyatt showed an interest, Munson said, so he signed Wyatt up for the URock Summer Camp at the St. Francis Music Center in Little Falls.
"At the end of the two weeks, he got done with this camp and it's just like he came out of his shell," Munson said. "He's on the speech team, and he plays the guitar, the bass guitar, I gave him a set of drums, he plays the piano. Now he practices every day. His grades went from Ds to Bs."
Munson said after Wyatt's transformation, he began to research the idea of bringing a similar camp to the Brainerd lakes area. In light of his illness, however, Munson said he was unsure it could ever happen.
"With this disease, I figured I'd get it started and then it will die," Munson said.
The Stage 4 pancreatic cancer Munson is currently facing is his second bout with the disease. First diagnosed three years ago, Munson received surgery and treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the cancer went into remission. In December of 2015, however, an unrelated procedure revealed the cancer returned with a vengeance. Doctors told Munson then his life expectancy was two months to a year.
"I still feel pretty good and I'm still here," he said, "but I'm on chemo all the time."
"I still feel pretty good and I'm still here." - Mark Munson
Munson was inspired to throw the "celebration of life" party by his niece's own version of the party a decade ago, which she planned while dying from melanoma. Munson's voice cracked while he spoke of the experience.
"I get choked up just thinking about it. It was the best party I'd ever been to," he said. "So I said, when I die, that's what I'm going to have."
Munson said between 150 and 200 friends and relatives from all over the United States are flying in to attend the party. This includes many from Texas, where the Munsons spend their winters and where Munson's other band, the PA Rockers, calls home. The party's purpose as a Rockin' Hill CD release show and fundraiser for the Mark Munson Memorial School of Rock means it's also open to the public. The $10 tickets are available at www.crossingarts.org/mark-munson-celebration, where T-shirts and Rockin' Hill CDs are also for sale with all proceeds supporting a scholarship fund for students wishing to attend the camp.
The T-shirts-the artwork on which was donated by Great Plain Graphics-feature a depiction of a red guitar, one of Munson's most recent guitar purchases. He bought the guitar after a friend who'd learned of his illness gave him a copy of the 2008 film "The Guitar." In the movie, a woman facing terminal cancer decides to pursue her dream of learning to play the guitar, purchasing a very expensive red one.
How to help the Mark Munson Memorial School of Rock
- Attend Munson's "celebration of life" party/the Rockin' Hill CD release show, where all funds will go to support the summer camp. The event is 2-6 p.m. June 12 at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. Visit www.crossingarts.org/mark-munson-celebration to purchase tickets for $10.
- The Crossing Arts Alliance online shop at www.tcaa.bigcartel.com offers school of rock T-shirts and Rockin' Hill CDs for purchase.
- Make a tax-deductible donation to The Crossing Arts Alliance. Call 218-833-0416 for more information.
- Donate used musical instruments or sound equipment for use at the camp. These donations are also tax-deductible. Call Munson at 218-831-1170 to make this type of donation.
- Become an instructor or the director of the program. Call Munson if interested in this opportunity as well.
Shortly after seeing the movie, Munson went down to the Mayo Clinic for one of his regular treatments.
"If the diagnosis is bad, I stop and buy a guitar," Munson said. "If the diagnosis is good, I stop and buy a guitar."
At a guitar store, he saw the red guitar, which also happened to be on sale. He bought it, and it's become the symbol of the effort to establish the camp.
There are other ways to help Munson's rock camp dream. The camp needs instructors as well as a director, and those with musical instruments or sound equipment may donate those to the camp for tax deductions. Contact Munson at 218-831-1170 if interested.
As Munson faces the end of his life, he said he takes comfort in knowing his legacy can live on in a way that brings music-and the joy it's brought him-into the lives of more young people.
"That's what music can do," he said. "That's why I'm so supportive of a program like this, because you get the kids started in something with music and they learn about it, they'll continue it their whole lives."