FORT WORTH Flags in Fort Worth have been lowered to half staff in honor of Van Cliburn.

The world renowned pianist died Wednesday morning of bone cancer at his home in Westover Hills. He was 78.

At the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958, few expected the Soviets to award the gold to the lanky 23-year-old Texan.

It's been said Van Cliburn helped thaw the Cold War. But he did so much more than that before his final public appearance last September, marking the 50th anniversary of the Cliburn piano competition in Fort Worth.

"I love you all from the bottom of my heart forever," he told the crowd in a weak but energetic voice. The crowd responded with a standing ovation.

Cliburn had just been diagnosed with the bone cancer that took his life. On his last full day, Van Cliburn prayed with his pastor, Brent Beasley.

"I read Psalm 91 about being under the shelter of God's care, and then we prayed together," Beasley said.

On Sunday mornings, Pastor Beasley would watch the famous pianist quietly slip into the back pew at Broadway Baptist Church, and slip out after worship.

"On Sunday mornings, he never failed to stop by and give me a hug and say, 'Wonderful, wonderful!'" Pastor Beasley recalled.

Cliburn would listen to the mighty organ he donated in honor of his mother and piano teacher, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn.

"If Holy Scriptures are the word of God, then surely great music must be the breath of God," Cliburn once said.

If so, Van Cliburn inspired generations of the world's great pianists to breathe deeply.

"My first CD I ever bought was his recording," said Alexander Kobrin, the 2005 Gold Medalist at the Cliburn piano competition in Fort Worth.

Alexander Kobrin won the Cliburn gold medal in 2005. "You can't overestimate the value and mission Van Cliburn had," he said.

Cliburn played for every U.S. president since Harry Truman. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts.

"If you knew Van at all, you couldn't help but absolutely love him for the man he was," said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

She said Van Cliburn did more than anyone to put Fort Worth on the world stage.

He leaves a legacy of character, faith and beauty.

Mourners from around the world are expected for his funeral service Sunday afternoon at 3 o'clock at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.


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