Amélie and John
My eldest (11-year-old) Grandson Brody was back at Memory Matters this week learning more about community service and the “art of engagement.” In truth he has been spending many hours in Memory Matters since he was just eight years old and has a natural gift when it comes to empathy for older generations. His Tee-Shirt shouted the words “Choose Kind” and he certainly was both kind and engaging this week, as well as funny. Hey! But I’m biased!

Brody reminded me of my friend John Ratliff who regularly provides musical entertainment for our Memory Matters’ families. John is so special, humble and kind, engaging, funny with plenty of self-deprecating humor, a classic story-teller, and a wonderful musician. However, even John would admit to being eclipsed by his lovely wife Marie and abundantly talented 14-year-old daughter Amélie. Amélie is a tenth grade distinguished honor role student at May River High School and was classically trained to play violin. Somehow she finds time away from studies to play violin for a myriad of symphonies and ensembles. She is also learning piano.

So this is a story about the master story teller himself – my friend John Ratliff. It’s a story about his family and John’s rise from a humble background, and the wonderful human values that drive him today to make life inordinately better for many who seek our help. “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw is a song that Brain Wellness Specialist Maureen prompted us to play, and I really think it suits John’s persona. A few lines:
Hold the door say please say thank you
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie
I know you got moutains to climb but
Always stay humble and kind
When the dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind
I often start my own stories with a quotation from a Steve Jobs or, most frequently the great world leader Sir Winston Churchill, but today I have chosen Charlie Chaplin, star of many silent movies in the 1930’s, but someone who brought joy to millions during the horrendous years of the great depression when 25% of our nation was unemployed and, many of those were homeless. Away from the silent movies Chaplin had a way with words. He said “a day without laughter is a day wasted” and “you will never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.” He also said “failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself”! John Ratliff knows how to laugh at himself.
Furthermore most people don’t know that Chaplin wrote the music for one of the greatest songs of all time. It is called “Smile.” It accompanied one of his 1936 movies. Later someone added the lyrics that everyone from Nat King Cole to Barbra Streisand to Michael Jackson has performed. Even this amateur Memory Matters Volunteer has played and sung this song. John knows how to encourage smiling faces.
John Ratliff came to the Memory Matters’ door one day and met our Program Director, Pat Cleary. He said he and his then 13-year-old daughter Amélie could come and play for our Compass program family members. He modestly inferred they could sing a few songs, perform a duet or two (John on guitar and Amélie on violin) and so Pat welcomed them. I was fortunate to be volunteering in the Compass program the first day they played, and suffice to say “they blew us away” with their musical talent, their innate ability to engage the audience and their ability to raise people up to a new level of excitement in an hour filled with joy and laughter. My great friend Bob Engle, a Volunteer with nine consecutive years experience at Memory Matters, remarked that he had never ever witnessed joy and engagement as good as this. Fast forward to this month, at our Volunteer Appreciation Party where John was present; Bob, with a tear in his eye, told John he and Amélie simply connected and engaged our participant family members in a truly memorable and unique way. You know, Charlie Chaplin would have been impressed!
So who is this guy John Ratliff? He certainly had a tough upbringing and was forever in a scrape at school. He had to earn one of his nicknames “John Wayne” the hard way, but currently I prefer “George “ since my friend caught me with a fine April Fool jest just a few weeks ago.
John is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 27 and was fortunate that it was caught early on and could be cured. It helped put life for him into perspective. As in the song “Smile” he learned anew that “life is still worthwhile” and he refocused and took this new courage, gained in adverstity, and put it to good use: starting his business, and caring for his family in new ways. He says now that it was a “blessing.”
For someone who displays a natural musical talent it’s interesting to note that he didn’t inherit the genes or have music lessons.
John’s parents never played instruments when he was growing up although his mother was an advanced tympanic percussionist in a Catholic high school orchestra. The contemplation of serious pursuit of a professional career in music was never more than a day dream. Fame, fortune, and all the trappings of life on the road never really appealed to John.  He would not have been a George Harrison or Paul McCartney!
He confided to me that he knows himself pretty well. He remarked, “I’m a relatively private person who thrives on a healthy daily rhythm. The thing about music that has always brought me the greatest joy is the impact that it has on others. To see the smiles light up when it works it’s magic is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Those close to Memory Matters know that we provide brain health education and memory care based upon five pillars (interventions) and one of them entitled “restfulness” includes meditation. So it’s also interesting to hear that John Ratliff embraces meditation in music. He comments, “the meditative aspects of long hours of practice and sessions of song writing where time stands still has been a tremendously positive and stabilizing anchor for my somewhat manic-depressive, left-handed genetic disposition!” One of John’s many values is his honesty.
Guitar was the first instrument John played in college. Believe it or not, and those who have heard John play every week will be amazed to read this, he could not read a note until just this year, and never took lessons other than playing with more proficient musicians and watching videos or DVD’s. He played in bands but his lack of formal training and resistance to a consistent uniform interpretation did not lend itself to a disciplined musical collaboration. Although anyone who has heard Amélie and John play the “Orange Blossom Special” might question that!
Recently John sent me two videos to enjoy. They were superb piano-based compositions of his own and definitely eclipsed the songs about “The Plumpy Hamster” written by this author and his Italian brother-in-law Davide Giannotti! Astonishingly, John has only been playing piano seriously since Amélie started taking lessons, although he dabbled in it for years.
After High School and College John became a software engineer. He actually started his software career at Villanova University working on Cobol CICS student record systems on an IBM 4381 mainframe, then jumped briefly to the insurance industry at the Society for C.P.C.U.  (Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters) to learn on a Vax/VMS/Oracle relational database clustered environment, and then jumped once again to Wyeth-Ayerst Research, where he spent ten years learning how to apply his skills as an Oracle relational database software developer to the very complex, regulated field of clinical research. Finally, he was able to make his dream come true and founded his own company, IVRESS, LLC which successfully provided custom patient randomization and drug supply management software solutions for clinical research trials. John says he was “fortunate,” but actually he worked his socks off to achieve this success! Software Engineers tend to be good and resourceful mathematicians and that mathematical ability does translate to music in terms of the formation and progression within a score. But I need to move on to the lovely Marie – John’s French wife – who helped both John and Amélie in  career and education.
John and Marie met in France and the rest is history or perhaps c’est la vie!
John and Marie
Marie comes from a very humble village in France where the opportunity to learn an instrument was simply not an option. That said, if the widely held belief that there is a connection between aptitude in mathematics and music is to be believed, then her formidable gifts and tremendous accomplishments in software engineering are clear indications, along with the way she was able to so quickly get up to speed to help Amélie with the violin, that had she been brought up in a different environment Marie would have had absolutely no trouble. John and a Marie collaborated in software engineering and when Amélie came along there commenced a truly selfless mission on Marie’s part to assist her daughter to become the pre-eminent violinist that we all know, admire and love.
Like John, Marie has no formal musical background although she did briefly take up bass guitar a few years ago but health problems hindered that. That said, Marie learned a tremendous amount in a very short time during her tenure as Amelie’s Suzuki home coach. She can read music and understands quite a bit about theory, terminology and what to pay attention to when approaching a complex piece on the road to becoming an accomplished musician.
So what about Amélie and her musical development? Here is how that unexpected gift occurred.
Upon enrolling her in Sea Pines Montessori there were no expectations of music education but a Good Samaritan proactively donated half a million dollars to get a Suzuki violin program started at the school. Marie and John were completely ignorant of the Suzuki method but they read up on it quickly and decided it was an absolutely golden opportunity since the lessons, instruments, and all related learning materials came with the price of tuition. Every student at Sea Pines Montessori was offered the exact same opportunity as Amélie. Unfortunately, they were one of only a handful of families willing to make the time commitment necessary for the Suzuki method to be successful. Marie deserves the lion’s share of the credit because it was she that became the third leg of the stool, the student and teacher being the other two. Unless all three work together the method is doomed to failure. The parent’s role is absolutely vital because it is the parent who MUST attend each weekly lesson and take notes. And it is the parent who leads the practice sessions the other six days of the week preparing for the next lesson to demonstrate proficiency. Marie and Amélie became quite a team and bonded in ways that very few mothers and daughters ever do. John played a minor role those first few years as his business still consumed almost all of his time and energy.

By the time John “retired” (this author thinks that he just “moved on”) Amélie was already far beyond all the other kids. But not so much because she had any more talent, although she certainly does have a special flair, but rather because she had something just as rare and precious; a mother selfless enough to make the commitment and follow through on it each and every day to help her navigate through the long hours of tearful practice, and triumph over one seemingly insurmountable goal after another, one week at a time.

Today Amélie and John work well together playing a wide variety of genres and as we know, Amélie plays as Assistant Concertmaster with the Savannah Youth Orchestra of Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus, and delights at many other venues. Just today, with school closed for the Heritage Classic week our participants were delighted to hear Amélie perform the haunting and melodic Ashokan Farewell. We are blessed to enjoy treats like these and John’s rendition of “Jackson,” sung as a duet with our own Melissa Dalton, was such good fun.
Every time I have asked John and Amélie to help with a special event the reply has been, “It is an honor to do so.” Last year’s, Gala (Sunset in Tuscany) where Amélie played a selection of specially chosen Italian music; then the Board Dinner at the home of one of our volunteers. This year Amélie will charm our “Splendor of Spain” Gala guests with a grand finale selection from Georges Bizet’s Carmen and in September she and John will help entertain an auction winner and guests at a unique Paella and Music evening.
Whenever these star volunteers arrive to play in our Compass program we all know we have been blessed with what will be another magical performance. John will modestly tell us that it is a privilege to play music at Memory Matters, and whether it is an Irish jig, Spanish gypsy music, jazz, a  Mozart classic, or standard like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” there is nothing better. There are favorites: “The Midnight Special” and John’s own composition about his cat called Lumpas that creates laughter sufficient for the rest of the week!
I have to conclude that John has a certain “je ne sais quois,” in English meaning, a distinctive quality that is not easy to put into words.
John visits many assisted living locations in the Lowcountry, and has a modest business known as Joyful Wild Rivers, LLC. You can find him on Facebook
and, he can be reached at
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile!
If like John and Amélie you feel moved to come and volunteer at Memory Matters, please give us a call 843 842 6688. We always welcome folk who ask to volunteer in our Compass programs, our kitchen (for serving and clean-up) and various administrative roles. 
Always remember that we are here to provide free and confidential baseline memory screening for the whole community. Our Vision is to Optimize Brain Wellness for everyone, from young to old.

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