By Miko Lee
This past week my beloved Uncle Ed passed away at the ripe age of 85. He died peacefully at the Veteran’s Home of Yountville where he spent the last year.
Edward Gong was known by various names throughout his life: Eddie, T-Shirt Ed, Private, Head Usher, Artist, Old Workout Guy, The One Man Piano Mover and Unc.
As a child, growing up in Madera and working in the laundry with his nine brothers and sisters he was known as “Eddie.” He gained the moniker “T-Shirt Ed” at Cal, (where he attained a degree in physics and a teaching credential) because he never wore a jacket no matter what the weather was. He was called “Private” when he worked in the Army at the Presidio Hospital during World War II. They called him “Head Usher” because of his many years as an usher at San Francisco Ballet, Davis Symphony Hall, and Cal Performances. He was called “Artist” because he was constantly taking classes in ballet, life drawing, opera, French horn, saxophone, clarinet, piano, and cello. At 24-Hour Fitness and the Y they called him the “Old Workout Guy” because he could bench press for hours on end.
Most people know him as “The One Man Piano Mover.” He is listed in Yelp as a Bay Area legend right along side the Naked Guy, the San Francisco Twins and others.
A long-time Berkeley resident –he moved here in 1947– he was renowned for moving a single grand piano by himself using balance and leverage. ‘It’s all physics,” he used to say as he asked for assistance in moving the rugs and dollies around. Almost everyone I know has at some point assisted Uncle Ed in moving a piano, from my two-year-old daughter to the jazz musician Jon Jang. Uncle Ed’s work has been chronicled in several documentary films and newspaper articles. He was estimated to have moved more than 7,000 pianos.
But I knew him as Uncle Ed. On several occasions his name popped up in conversation and I pointed out the familial connection. The response was identical, “What, he has a family? You are related to him?” Yes there was family, a great big Gong Show. In fact there are still eight surviving siblings and spouses, 23 nieces and nephews and more than 30 grand nieces and nephews.
We called him simply “Unc.” He was the muscle man, who tumbled us in the air on Christmas Eve. Our own Chinese Jack LaLane always espousing the nature of fitness and education. He was the epitome of the word eccentric. While the rest of our parents were raising families and had careers as professors, scientists, teachers and business people, he went by the tune of his own piano. He never married and kept his own piano-moving business going solely through word of mouth.
He was a great collector who during certain times of his life literally had warehouses full of things from pots and pans to pianos. I have a fond memory of him taking me to his rented garage on Ashby that held the entire contents of a magic store that he bought out. I was in heaven, but was curious why he had all of those things. He answered with his little giggle, “Because it is fun! Take anything you want!” I was putting on magic shows for months.
When any of us cousins were about to learn a musical instrument, before heading to the music store, we would just call up Unc to see if he happened to own one. The wonder of Unc is that you could hit the jackpot and receive a brand new shiny saxophone or open a violin case to nothing but dust mites.
Unc loved going to fairs and would spend days and days participating in every fair activity possible. He would stay until the late hours to watch a calf being born and chat with every stranger as if they were old friends. Once he went to visit my cousins in Germany so he could get to the World’s Fair in Spain. He packed suitcases full of books, but showed up at the Munich airport in bedroom slippers and no shoes!
Unc didn’t believe in going to the doctor and, in order to get new glasses, would head to the nearest thrift store and search through the bins until he found a pair that worked. Almost every time I saw him he was wearing a different pair of glasses. He didn’t care what they looked like on the outside — red, stripped, pink or polka dots — if he could see out of them then they were just fine. He honestly did not care what people thought about him.
Unc introduced me to ballet, opera and symphony. He infused in me a love for the performing arts, which is my profession. But the biggest lesson I learned from him is the strength to follow your own dreams and become your own person. My Unc with the many names and many more admirers lived a long and full life. Did you ever meet my Uncle Ed?
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