FORT WORTH — Former President George W. Bush was among more than a thousand people who attended the memorial service for Van Cliburn on Sunday afternoon, telling mourners the renowned classical pianist spread peace through his music.
“He was gracious and humble,” Bush said to about 1,400 people attending the event at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. “He was beloved even by the enemy.”
President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — to Cliburn in 2003.
Cliburn died Wednesday in his Fort Worth mansion at the age of 78 after fighting bone cancer.
He became a national hero after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. His victory came at the height of the Cold War, and helped thaw relations between the United States and Soviet Union.
Cliburn then became an internationally famous concert pianist, performing for every U.S. president since Harry Truman.
"He played with an extraordinary amount of joy, and people sensed that joy," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told mourners, making note of Cliburn's foundation that was established in 1962. "He brought new talent to life, inspired new artists around the world; he also helped keep Texas firmly on the map and at the center of the fine arts."
Hours before the service, hundreds began lining up outside Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church, where Cliburn attended for years.
"Throughout his extraordinary life, faith was central to Van Cliburn," said The Rev. Dr. Brent Beasley, senior pastor at Broadway Baptist Church, in his homily.
A 300-member choir performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra during a two-hour service that was filled with beautiful music.
"Van's death is a crater-sized void that is felt around the world," Thomas L. Smith, Van Cliburn's longtime partner said in a brief but moving tribute. "For me, it is a loss of my soul mate, the deepest friendship. My gratitude is boundless.”
Friends reflected on Cliburn’s early years. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and raised in East Texas by Harvey Cliburn Sr., an oilman, and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn.
When Cliburn was three years old, he began studying piano with his mother, who herself was an accomplished pianist.
"Van was never looking to make history as a classical musician,” said friend Dee J. Kelly. “He only wanted to play well enough to beat his mother... and in the process, he did both.”
Through the years, Cliburn's fame grew. He toured all over the world, often to sold-out concerts and adoring fans.
He was particularly loved in Russia. President Vladimir Putin said in a statement, “We shall always remember Van Cliburn as a true and sincere friend of the Russian people.”
At his memorial service, Russian cellist Olga Rostropovich echoed Putin’s admiration.
"I shall always be grateful to be able to call Van my friend, and for everything that I learned from this great, unassuming, humble and kind human being," she said. "For us, he was a symbol of hope for humankind.”