Charbonneau resident returns to the instrument of his youth

PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: ANDREW BANTLY - McCallister once played the accordion and guitar. After heart surgery six years ago, he considered picking up the accordion again, but chose the ukulele instead, after his wife said she didnt care for the sound of the accordion.

Ron McCallister is the kind of guy who does things one way: diligently. Still today, at age 75, McCallister gets grief from his friends because of his work ethic.

“There Ron goes again on another project,” his friends joke.

Ukulele is the current pursuit on McCallister’s long list of accomplishments. The Charbonneau resident’s passion for the instrument has put him front and center, as leader of a weekly ukulele jam session at the West Linn Adult Community Center Tuesday afternoons, free of charge and open to all levels of experience.

“People say I’m an overachiever,” McCallister said. “I spent a lot of time practicing and studying, learning how to do that thing — whatever it is.”

McCallister grew up in the southern Idaho town of Burley, an old Mormon community with “wonderful principles (and) morals,” he said. As a youth, he studied the accordion for three years vigorously and experimented with the sounds of the guitar and ukulele. Guitar wasn’t to his pleasure and accordion didn’t fit into his college schedule or suitcase at Idaho State University.

The ukulele, on the other hand, was practical.

“I would take ukulele breaks and just strum, but I didn’t know how to do it at all so I learned by ear,” he said. “I realized I was using that as a social tool to avoid dealing with people.”

So while he ditched the obsession in favor of more personal interaction with others, “that bit of ukulele back then still held a little attraction for me,” McCallister explained.

After graduating with a degree in accounting, McCallister sought more accreditation and pursued his advanced certification as a personal financial specialist.

But that still wasn’t enough.

McCallister adopted a Saint Bernard, Misti, with the agreement he’d train her. The pair worked together faithfully each day for an hour, to master Misti’s obedience skills.

“I loved it,” he said. “If there was ice on the road and I didn’t get home till 9 or 10 at night, I still took her out and worked with her. She got really, really good.”

In 1972, McCallister moved to Portland. He managed his own financial services business for 30 years, until 2002, when a “large insurance company bought me out. So I retired.”

“It’s been great,” he said. “I didn’t really intend to fully retire. I continued to practice tax law for three or four years after I sold my investment practice.” PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: ANDREW BANTLY - Portuguese immigrants introduced the small guitar-like instrument known as the ukulele to Hawaiian musicians in the 19th century. Todays ukuleles are made from solid hardwoods and remain shaped like a miniature acoustic guitar.

Meanwhile, McCallister started getting into one thing, then another, before landing on woodworking as his next area of adventure. His friends’ humor continued to flow with each piece created in his shop. However, six and a half years ago McCallister needed triple bypass surgery and his woodworking career came to an abrupt halt.

Six months after his surgery, eager to get into something new, McCallister wanted to return to his accordion. But there was a problem — his wife, Sandy, didn’t enjoy the sound. She preferred the ukulele.

“Part of the cause for me to want to do the uke is because she wanted to do it also,” he said. “So when my wife said let’s take it up, and I got started on it, it was pretty easy for me.”

It was the first time since college McCallister had played an instrument. So, naturally, he spent four to six hours a day practicing the ukulele over the first three years. Now, he usually practices “only a couple hours a day.”

“Ukulele is really easy to learn,” he said. “The thing is, you can play a lot with three chords, but if you can get to seven or eight chords, then you can play most songs.”

PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: ANDREW BANTLY - Ron McCallister plays his ukulele as the leader of the West Linn ukulele jam session at the West Linn Adult Community Center.McCallister attends three ukulele jam groups in Tualatin, Wilsonville and West Linn. He’s led the West Linn group for about three years.

“There is so much happiness in our group,” he said. “People just have a fine time. It brings you together with people who all love the same thing, who all have the same commitment and pleasure from enhancing their ability to add a little bit more to the style they’re able to generate.”

McCallister may be the leader for the West Linn group, but he is by no means the teacher.

“People pick the songs they want to play and whoever picks the song, gets to chose how it’s going to go,” McCallister said.

They experiment and conquer songs together, at times going through the tune multiple times to find perfect harmony, both in the song and in life.

“One of the (players) has cancer,” McCallister said, “and he comes to our group because he says it’s the only thing in his life where he can be totally away from his issues and just have a good time. There are a number of stories like that.”

The West Linn jam meets at the Adult Community Center on Tuesdays from 2-3:30 p.m. and has “no requirements whatsoever, no fee,” McCallister said. “Come in and learn.”

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