Milan Opacich, tamburitzan talent, dies at age 84
By Mark Taylor Post-Tribune correspondent January 22, 2013 5:40PM
Milan Opacich works in his shop in this January, 2007 file phtoo. Opacich, an internatonallly known tamburitza player and instrument builder died Monday Jan 21, 2013. | File~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 24, 2013 6:26AM
The music maker may have died, but the music goes on.
That’s how students, friends and admirers described the legacy of Milan Opacich, 84, of Schererville, a musician, instrument maker and historian nationally known for his contributions to tamburitzan music, the folk music of his Croatian and Serbian ancestors.
Opacich, a retired Gary firefighter and married father of one, died Monday from complications of pancreatic cancer.
For decades Opacich created and repaired wooden stringed instruments for musicians around the world, including for country music legends like Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins. His instruments were played by hundreds of other musicians in the tightly knit world of tamburitzan music, the South Slavic string music he loved. In addition to his skills as an instrument maker, Opacich also played in tamburitzan bands for more than 60 years and wrote extensively about the music.
His skills as a luthier (instrument maker) were recognized in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded Opacich its Heritage Fellowship Award, its highest honor for folk music. His instruments were displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Roy Acuff Museum in Nashville. He was also inducted into the Tamburitzan Hall of Fame in 2002.
Opacich even published a book about his passion, “Tamburitza America,” that detailed the history of the music.
Fellow tamburitzan John Gornick of Chicago, 80, who had known Opacich for more than 40 years, said: “It will take a long time to fill that man’s shoes. He made our music known nationally and helped to keep it alive. He had a beautiful voice and was an excellent musician and composer. Milan was one of a kind.”
Opacich was a beloved figure to generations of tamburitzan music fans and players, his shock of white hair and ear-to-ear grin a familiar sight at hundreds of weddings and saint day parties throughout Northwest Indiana.
He outlived most of his tamburitzan contemporaries, but succeeding generations of players looked up to him. John Miksich, of Schererville, said Opacich will be dearly missed by his friends.
“Milan was a wonderful person who spread his knowledge and perpetuated the culture to the utmost,” Miksich said. “He was a great guy.”
St. John lawyer George Ivancevich said Opacich “lived a dream life. He did things he probably never could have imagined as a young man.”
Ivancevich, who played with Opacich in the Drina Orchestra for more than 30 years, said Opacich preserved and propagated tamburitzan music like few others.
“He has memorialized our heritage,” he said.
Ivancevich said he will remember Opacich’s version of “Bjela Ruza” (White Rose), a Serbian song that always reminded Opacich of his wife of 61 years, Roz Opacich.
“Every time he would sing it the rest of us in the group would just marvel. The hair would stand up on the backs of our necks,” he said. “It was the most incredible version I’d heard.”
Over the decades Opacich taught scores of students how to build musical instruments. Rick Barna, a retired East Chicago steelworker who took guitar-making classes with Opacich, said the guitar he built was incidental to the time he spent with his teacher.
“He was patient, a fine artist and craftsman,” Barna said. “But more than anything else, I enjoyed being with him, the stories he told about the region. Spending time with him was priceless. I’ll bet he’s playing some great music in heaven now.”
John Hancock, a retired ArcelorMittal boilermaker from Griffith, said Opacich not only taught guitar making, “He taught life. He imbued his classes with history and culture and had a wonderful work ethic and wanted everyone to fall in love with the craft. It was what he lived for.”
Karin Opacich said her father was “feisty until the very end. When he died, there were still so many things he wanted to do.”
She said her father, known as “the Silver Fox,” was an extraordinary man.
“He was so talented and generous with his time and talent. I grew up to the sound of music and the buzzing of saws. He was always there at my proudest moments and taught me the importance of caring deeply and the wonder of learning new things and following your passions.”
Visitation services for Milan Opacich will be held from 2-8 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Burns Funeral Home, 101st and Broadway, Crown Point. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Jan. 25 at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, 9191 Mississippi St., Merrillville.