Jeanne Sager | Democrat
FIVE-YEAR-OLD Nikolas Knobloch of Fallsburg goofs around with South Fallsburg-raised recording star Gavin DeGraw.
At heart, DeGraw's still a 'hometown boy'
By Jeanne Sager
FALLSBURG To hoards of screaming teen girls, he’s “OooooohmigodGavinDeGraw!”
But in the cafeteria of his old elementary school, the 1995 Fallsburg Central School grad simply stuck out his hand to an awestruck Ida Dumbuya Monday afternoon.
“Hi, I’m Gavin. What’s your name?”
The 10-year-old from South Fallsburg held high her brand new pink backpack courtesy of the Office Depot Foundation and Buckle Up America and already marked with a smiley face, musical note and the inscription, “To Ida, Gavin DeGraw.”
Asked if she was actually going to wear it to school this fall, Dumbuya grinned. “Are you kidding me? It’s signed by a famous person!”
Dumbuya found out minutes later that that famous person once sat in the same classroom where she’ll start the sixth grade this September. Her eyes widened.
“Really? That’s pretty cool,” she said.
Gavin DeGraw is indeed cool. The platinum selling recording artist has watched his songs climb as high as 4 and 5 on the Billboard charts since the 2003 release of “Chariot” made the music industry stand up and take notice.
The album sold more than a million copies and spawned three hit singles, including “I Don’t Want to Be,” which went on to become the theme song for the WB’s teen drama “One Tree Hill.”
It’s a song that hits close to home for the singer songwriter after all, it’s about himself, his family and his hometown.
“I don't need to be anything other than a prison guard's son,” he sang. “I don't need to be anything other than a specialist's son.”
The prison guard and specialist? His parents Wayne, a former corrections officer at Sullivan Correctional Facility, and Lynne, a nurse practitioner who used to see patients in Monticello.
The song ends with a reference to his upbringing “I came from the mountains, the crust of creation” so it’s no wonder he grins when asked about his visit home to South Fallsburg.
“It’s nice coming out here and being where you grew up,” he explained, swinging his long legs under the fold-up-style cafeteria table at Benjamin Cosor. “I like coming up here whether it’s bumping into the people you know or just smelling the air. The air up here has its own aroma.
“I come over the Wurtsboro mountain, and I say ‘Wow, I’m back upstate’,” he said. “I love the smell of mountain air!”
His most recent trip to the mountains has been timed around his second homecoming concert, this Saturday’s show at Monticello Gaming and Raceway. Seeing Gavin and brother Joey in the grandstand will cost $40 for general admission, $60 for “gold” ticketholders.
But Monday wasn’t about getting something for DeGraw. It was about giving back to the community that’s already given him so much.
“I wanted to be involved with helping my hometown,” he explained. “A lot of people mention giving back, but if I have the opportunity, I want to do more than talk.”
DeGraw used connections through his management group, Blu Moon, to make Monday’s backpack and school supply give-away happen. The Office Depot Foundation signed on to donate the supplies, while Buckle Up America sent along a challenge for families to sign, promising their children would be properly secured in carseats or seatbelts.
Lynne said the original plan was to get backpacks for every kid in Sullivan County, but when they learned they could only get 250, Gavin opted to direct the bags to his elementary school.
The family arrived at the school to hand over 17 backpacks those already delivered to the school putting the next shipment in the hands of Benjamin Cosor Principal Martin Tawil. He will be choosing the families in the greatest need to receive the supplies not hard to find in a district where more than 70 percent of the children qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
“It’s nice when someone supports their own school,” Tawil said. “It’s nice to see he wants to give back we’re a very needy district.”
The DeGraws walked in with a towering cardboard box full of Gavin t-shirts, which the 17 kids invited by Tawil and a number of staffers’ children pawed through with glee. Gavin then signed each shirt, making out inscriptions to friends and family members while his mom wandered the lunchroom aisles, pinning “Gavin is My Homeboy” ephemera to the kids’ chests.
“It’s not such an impossible amount of work for me to meet some kids, take some pictures,” DeGraw said later, “to make them happy.”
Growing up in Fallsburg gave him roots, allowed him to flourish into the singer-songwriter who finally made a break from the straight and narrow path in 1998 to pursue music full-time.
“I was lucky enough my parents let me run around and play with my buddies, play guns in the woods,” he said with a laugh. “We played war, like most kids. We didn’t come home until dark.”
When he graduated from Fallsburg, DeGraw went to college because he thought he should.
“I was worried. I wasn’t sure if I should strictly pursue music,” he admitted. “But I was thinking the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.”
The reward has been great, but DeGraw doesn’t buy into the hype.
“I made it?” he parrots back when asked when he knew he’d made the big time. “That never really crosses my mind. I never really feel like I’m done accomplishing what I’ve set out to accomplish. I never really feel like I’ve made it.
“I just don’t feel like I’ve necessarily gotten too big for my britches,” he continued. “I still associate with my childhood friends the same way I did. I think it helps that we still have the same house we had when I was growing up. When you can walk into your childhood bedroom, it grounds you.”
The kids who shook DeGraw’s hand and wrapped their arms around him for a picture haven’t touched ground since Monday.
Lindsay Malman and Amanda Wilson already had their tickets for the Thursday evening Jonas Brothers concert at Bethel Woods, but they’ll be staying up late Saturday night for the DeGraw concert too. The fact that he once walked the halls of the same school building was enough to prompt the girls to put the Saturday concert on equal footing with the Disney Channel idols.
“It’s cool,” said the 14-year-old Malman. “It makes you feel like anybody can be from a small town and be big and famous.”
“Like you can do big things in life,” Wilson added.
So what will Saturday night’s show be like for the star?
“It’s just one more excuse to come home,” DeGraw said with a sheepish grin. “Maybe if I’m lucky it will feel like a local 4th of July all over again. I’m actually pretty curious I’ll be watching the people as much as they’re watching me!”