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(Feb. 14, 2007)

          I was renting a DVD at Vidiots one night, the specialty video joint in Santa Monica, while one of the old “Peanuts” specials was playing on the monitors. The employees tend to be entertainment freaks---uh, specialists---with encyclopedic knowledge and eclectic taste in things cinematic.
          The guy who was waiting on me had one eye on the “Peanuts” special.
          “Wonder,” he said to no one in particular, “whatever happened to Shermy.”
          He knew his Charles Schulz, did this fellow, inquiring as to the fate of one of the original characters.
          Fate had conspired to sneak up on him. Or maybe on me. I smiled.
          “He’s my neighbor,” I said.
          Vidiot Employee gave me a kind of dumbstruck Linus look.
          “Really,” I added. “He lives in my building. He and Schulz were best friends as kids, and stayed close for life. He’s a retired Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District music teacher, and a hell of a nice guy.”
          Employee stared at me, as if perhaps I was a vision of some sort, if not a pathological liar who haunted video stores, playing tricks on the staff. I smiled.
          “I’m not kidding. His name’s Sherman Plepler.”
          The rather incredible name (I can make such comments with impunity) sealed my credibility.
          “Hey!” Employee yelled to a colleague. “You know how we were talking a few minutes ago about Shermy? This guy lives next door to him!”
          It’s not a bad claim to fame, sharing a condo building with a character from the most duly famous and loved comic strip in history. It sure as hell beats saying “I have a website.”

Shermy, C.B., 1956.
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          Yes, I know Shermy, but really, I know Sherm. There is little similarity, or at least you don’t see it at first. Sherm, for example, is about five-feet-ten, and around 80, and Shermy is about a half-inch (he was an inch on Sundays), and perhaps seven. Sherm wears slacks and sweaters, and Shermy wore striped T-shirts and short pants. Shermy had a crew cut, and Sherm has wispy white strands.
          Shermy was a redoubtable, if infrequent and taciturn presence in “Peanuts.” The kind of kid who, once he becomes your friend, will always be your friend. Someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, daydream with. . .
          To wit:
          In one strip from 1956---you know, one of those years that happened before 9/11---Shermy and Charlie Brown are sitting on a curb, passing the time as kids do (or did), when Shermy observes, “Big people are always asking me what I’m going to be when I grow up. How do they expect us to know?” Next panel: “Do you know what you’re going to be when you grow up, Charlie Brown?”
          Answer: “Sure. Lonesome.”
          If Shermy existed largely for his good pal Charlie Brown to talk to---Sherm did much the same for his childhood pal, “Sparky” Schulz. And therein, I think, lies their similarity. . .
          Sherman Plepler, you see, is a rock. You might not guess it to look at him today, as he has been battling gravity, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, for a long time. He walks with a cane, and is apt to wobble on uneven ground, but there is nobody better to talk to, ask questions of, run things by---and nobody I’d rather rely on in a pinch. It is no stretch to say that Sherm embodies the better stuff of humanity, however tentative a boast that might be nowadays.
          For Sherm has the rare, teacherly gift of making one feel important, sane, consequential. He doesn’t patronize, or glad-hand---he listens, understands, respects, and responds. He is deeply possessed of what is probably the one quality that poses any chance of saving the human race: empathy. No wonder he was a teacher for most of his life, and no wonder he is still not only in touch with former students, but still listening to them, understanding them, and responding to them.
          Gushing? Can’t help it. It’s hard to write with any restraint about Plepler. Understatement always makes for greater impact, but understatement does not come easily here---unless it comes from Sherm himself as he speaks with characteristic self-deprecation and jocularity.
          I mean, bring up “Peanuts,” and you get the idea that he is bemused at the fact that he will always be pint-sized with a crew-cut. That he will live forever inside little black squares drawn by the guy with whom he shared a metaphorical curb for life. Sherm doesn’t tout being Shermy, though he will bring it up with a wry smile and a twinkle in the eye when you get to know him a little.
          “It never really meant a great deal to me at the time, and I was always totally amazed when publications such as Time Magazine and others searched me out for thoughts,” he’ll tell you.
          It’s not that he isn’t proud, but the pride is in having known Sparky, not having been a scribbled manifestation of his muse. PBS interviewed him a few months ago for an “American Masters” on Schulz (to air later this year), and Sherm delighted in going on film with stories of their childhood together in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his thoughts on the enduring appeal of Charlie Brown, et. al.
          “People relate to Peanuts for different reasons,” he said. “Some people loved his so-called theology, others think of themselves as Charlie Brown who seldom can manage to do anything quite right, while other pet owners think that their pet is as intelligent as Snoopy.”
          By the way, Sherm is one of the few living people who knew the real Snoopy, or at least the model for the world’s most famous canine. In fact, it was a drawing of the dog that first made him realize that his friend had some serious talent.
          “It was when the Saturday Evening Post accepted Sparky’s drawing for Robert Ripley’s ‘Believe or Not,’ when he described his dog Spike, the forerunner of Snoopy, who ate some nails and glass and seemed to enjoy it.”
          Sherm will also tell you about how much fun “Sparky” had inserting sports into “Peanuts”---“He was a Wayne Gretzky type hockey player, and could have been a professional golfer”---and how proud Schulz was to have introduced Franklin, the first black character to appear in any comic strip. He’ll explain how Schulz probably felt much like Charlie Brown due to rejections in his childhood, and sort of wryly chuckles over the fact that Shermy was discontinued after 1970 (In the1965 animated “Peanuts” Christmas special, Shermy has one line: “Every Christmas it’s the same: I always end up playing a Shepherd.”)
          “His readers probably realize that he had dropped several characters during the years," Sherm said," adding "He laughed heartily while informing me that 'I no longer have any character!"
          But for Sherm, the Beethoven-obsessed “Peanuts” favorite, Schroeder, might never have existed:
          “Being that my mother was a fine pianist,” he said, “ I became interested in the violin at an early age and started taking lessons. I must add that Sparky spent many an hour in listening to me practice as well as discovering the composer Beethoven at my home while listening to my mother perform her favorite composer.”
          And this anecdote brings us to the essential identity of Sherm/Shermy. . .
          Mr. Plepler.
          While Schulz spent a lifetime at a sketch pad, Sherm spent his with a violin under his chin. He taught band, orchestra, chorus in Minnesota and Wisconsin, played with the Duluth Symphony Orchestra, performed with Teddy Phillips' big band at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago at the height of the era, and wound up in L.A., spending 30 years with the Santa Monica-Malibu Union School District. He was equally at home fiddling around with jazz, navigating the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and conducting student orchestras.
          “Sure, I saw him perform and conduct,” said his long-ago student and lifelong friend, Lois White. “He was amazing at both things. All of us were just kids, but he behaved like we were in Carnegie Hall and not just a bunch of dipheads. His ongoing steadfastness, kindness, intelligence, and compassion couldn’t help but influence people.”
          If friends are a measure of a life well lived, ex-students who return as friends must be the measure of a teaching life well lived. Another of Sherm's ex-students who stays in touch is Michael Sachs, first chair trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra. It was Sherm who encouraged Sachs to stick with music during a time of doubt. Good thing, too, as John Williams wound up dedicating his trumpet concerto to Sachs, saying he was the musician most capable of performing it.
          “Sherm is a very kind and gentle man,” said composer Moira Levant, who began learning violin from Plepler in third grade. “Often, gentleness and kindness are thought of as weakness. I would not call Sherm ‘weak’ in any sense. He’s got strong conviction, but at the same time isn’t overbearing.”
          Levant stopped studying music with Plepler at age 12, when she left California. Twenty-four years later, she found him on-line and was moved to reestablish---or, perhaps, establish---a close friendship.
          “When my brother died in 2004, I was in Ireland (pursuing a Master’s in ethnomusicology), and it was Sherm I called for advice. He said ‘finish the degree and then go home and take care of your grieving family.’ He has always made time for me even when it was hard for him. I enjoy his humor and realism; he has yet to give me bad advice. He’s a hero to me.”
          And also to White:
        "He always thinks of other people and how they're doing, what they might need or want,” she said, recalling one Thanksgiving years ago when she was a guest with Plepler, family and friends.
          “My birthday is around Thanksgiving,” she said. “We were sitting down to eat when Sherm got up. Nobody thought anything of it until he came back to the table a little too late for it to have been a bathroom trip, and gave me a birthday card. He'd realized it was my birthday, and had gone out to the closest store and got it. I know that's a small thing, but it wasn't to me.”
          Quoth Plepler:
          “True happiness is finding ex-students who still look me up while expressing a feeling of warmth. I wish that nations could also do the same.”
          (Sounds like something Schulz might have put in a “Peanuts” strip.)
          Sherm’s violin is gone now. The music has stopped. Or rather, it has been stopped by things with the chillingly clinical names, “acoustic neuroma.” These are tumors that took up residence behind each of his ears late in life, and eventually shut down their function altogether. He is almost as deaf to the world as George W. Bush.
          Yet such Beethovenian fate has never once compromised the man’s affable spirit. In the ten years I’ve known him, I have not once heard self-pity, though he is hardly beyond barbed complaints about the health care system. He fires off periodic e-mails to friends on his medical progress, generally laced with sardonic observations about HMO’s---and praise for his doctors and nurses.
          As for the incurable tumors, radiation arrested their growth, at least temporarily, and Sherm persuaded doctors to let him volunteer as a guinea pig for experimental treatment—-becoming the first person with advanced acoustic neuromas to undergo cochlear implant surgery.
          “I figure if my case might help give doctors new data, that’s a good thing,” he is wont to say.
          The surgery was tricky, and the recovery painful. Because the tumors must be periodically measured with MRI’s, doctors could not implant the magnetic part of the device that translates cochlear stimulation into sound, as it would interfere with MRI’s. So Sherm tapes the magnet portion to the side of his head(!), making him look vaguely bionic. It’s pioneering technique, and it has succeeded to the extent that he now picks up wayward words and sounds. If you want to converse with him, though, bring a pad and pencil---or a computer keyboard.
          “It's truly been tough, particularly in not being able to hear music again,” he admitted. “But I'm extremely grateful that my tumors didn't occur while younger, as I was able to conclude my career as an instructor of music.”
          This is typical. He doesn’t tell you about the pain, the bureaucratic nonsense that postponed his surgery while the tumors increased, or the time he stuck his hand in a garbage disposal while it was turned on---because (gasp) he couldn’t hear it. (He got away with stitches.)
          Through it all, you get the impression that this is a happy man, despite the deafness, despite the loss in 2000 of his dear friend, Schulz. One factor is certainly his effervescent, stalwart “girlfriend” of many years, Ann---a former fellow music teacher in Santa Monica.
          What does trouble Sherm, and produces undisguised anguish, is the state of the world.
          “Having grown up before TV, computers, cell phones, etcetera," he said, "I sometimes wonder how much true happiness they've added to our lives. When growing up, Sparky and I spent many an hour after school while playing winter hockey in our spacious backyards, baseball in warmer weather, and just enjoying each other while talking of our dreams. I somehow wish that more of our young people could do this today.”
          This brings to mind one more “Peanuts” strip, also from 1956. Shermy and Charlie Brown are resting their elbows on a brick wall. Says Charlie Brown, “I sure get discouraged sometimes.” Next panel: they are walking, Charlie Brown leading, as he continues, “The only consolation is that it can’t last forever.” Third panel: “The way I see it,” Charlie Brown continues, “these must be the hard years.” Final panel: he turns to his friend, spreads his arms wide, and joyously proclaims, “Then, after you grow up, all your troubles are over!”
          Not quite. But then, in a way, Sparky Schulz saw to it that he and his pal, Shermy, never had to worry about that.

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