Editor’s Note: As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, we are honoring its impact on our community with a series of stories embracing the themes of remembrance, recovery, and resurgence.

When Andrea Banks learned a few weeks after the Camp Fire broke out that her family’s heirloom piano, formerly owned by her father, legendary Chico State College music professor C. Robert Laxson, had been destroyed, she felt she had lost a piece of her heart.

Laxson, for whom the University’s historic auditorium is named, taught on campus for 22 years until his unexpected death in 1968 when Banks was just 13. His 1899 Model O ebony Grand Steinway, which had been on loan to friends in Paradise, was the most treasured possession that Banks, her brother, Rob Laxson, and their families had by which to remember the renowned musician.

“I cried when I looked for the house on the burn map and saw it was marked that it was gone,” recalled Banks (Business Administration, ’77). “My dad had that piano before I was born—he taught lessons on it every Saturday. Every night when I went to bed, he was playing it. It was always in our home.”

In the months after the fire, an idea occurred to Banks and her husband, Larry, about how to keep her father’s music legacy alive. What if their homeowner’s insurance policy would reimburse them for the loss of the piano? It was a long shot, since the instrument wasn’t named in their policy and wasn’t actually in their home when it was destroyed. “Whatever we get, I’ll give to the University,” Banks determined, with plans to donate any amount she received to the C. Robert Laxson Memorial Scholarship Endowment for music students, which her family has supported for decades.

The rusted, warped and crumbling remnants of the piano soundboard sit in the ashes of the home it was in.
The soundboard of the piano rests in the ashes of the home it was in when the Camp Fire ravaged Paradise.

Like so many others who sustained losses in the fire, she began the arduous process of collecting documentation to file an insurance claim. The Bankses traveled to the site of the home where the piano had been, where they found and photographed remnants of the soundboard and a piece of the original patent. Carefully putting together a claim, they sent it off with a prayer and a hope that something tangible might come from the loss of their father’s prized possession.

To her surprise and delight, her insurance company not only validated her claim but issued a check for far greater than she anticipated. As a result, earlier this year Banks and Rob Laxson made a sizeable donation to their father’s music scholarship, essentially doubling the endowment’s value and ensuring Chico State music students will be supported for generations to come.

“This is a tangible way to help my parents’ legacies live on,” she said. “Dad would be so happy to know that if this was the way his piano had to end, at least it is benefitting future educators and musicians.”

The rusted fire-scorched patent of the piano.
The piano’s patent was recovered and among the documentation the family submitted to the insurance company for proof with its claim.

C. Robert Laxson, who went by “Bob,” taught music at Chico State College from 1946–1968. He was active in many music organizations in Northern California: Phi Mu Alpha Professional Fraternity of the National Conference of Music, the National Piano Teacher’s Association, the California Teachers Association, and the Association of California State College Instructors.

As an outstanding pianist, he accompanied many nationally known artists in performances at Chico State College and in the Bay Area. He was, above all, a dedicated teacher: Banks recalls walking to campus from nearby Aymer J. Hamilton Elementary School to visit her dad, often waiting outside his office door while he worked tirelessly with students.

Laxson died April 27, 1968, at the age of 55. A scholarship fund supporting students in music performance and education was established shortly after in his honor, and in 1974 the historic University Auditorium was renamed for him.

The scholarship supports upper-level or graduate students majoring in music, with preference given to those studying keyboard performance or music education. The support also seeks to honor students who have performed community service in a musical capacity, such as volunteering in schools or churches or accompanying community performances, because giving back was such a signature part of Laxson’s identity.

Music education major Brooklyn Becker, who dreams of becoming a chorale director, is the 2019–20 scholarship recipient, the 35th student to receive one since its creation. Becker, a junior, says the financial support has directly assisted her with numerous trips to the music store to purchase methods and techniques books as well as piano repertoire required for her classes. Learning about the Laxson family’s recent and ongoing dedication to music students made the support even more meaningful, she said.

“I’m very honored they would do that, that they’re willing to contribute to students who love music,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard doing this, and you wonder if you’re choosing the right path. It’s encouraging to know that people want us to excel and want to help us succeed.”

For Banks and her family, supporting the scholarship and assisting future musicians and educators was the most meaningful way they could imagine to honor her father’s memory and transform the fire’s devastation into a representation of resilience.

“This is one little shining star in the whole thing,” Banks said. “Although it is sad that we lost our family heirloom, I think my dad would be pretty happy that the result of that tragedy is going to turn into a benefit for students, which is what he loved most: teaching and helping students.”