A stolen guitar, a letter to the editor – and kindness

Randy Mortensen knows that for every person like the one who stole his guitar, there are many more like the man who replaced it.

That belief is what keeps songs in his heart, which he regularly shares with residents of retirement homes and assisted-living facilities in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

The 62-year-old Ceres resident has for 10 years earned his income playing guitar and singing country and western songs, first with his brother – who’s since moved to Arizona – and now on his own.

A couple of weeks ago, his guitar and amplifier were stolen when someone burglarized several vehicles in the parking lot of a Modesto restaurant. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do, I really didn’t,” Mortensen said, adding that he borrowed a guitar and “winged it” while trying to figure out how to replace something he couldn’t afford.

Understandably angry, he voiced his frustration in a letter to the editor of The Bee. It read, in part: “Breaking into my car and stealing my guitar has put me out of business. You never considered the fact that it might cause anyone hardship.”

The letter got the attention of David Sanders, owner of California Freight Sales in Ripon, who, according to his office manager, came into her office and said, “I think we need to buy him a guitar.”

Sanders never had heard of Mortensen, let alone heard him play, but Sanders “just has a huge heart” and “likes to help people,” said Office Manager Bobbie Bolda.

Bolda and Sanders went to Guitar Center on McHenry Avenue in Modesto to buy Mortensen a new guitar, but didn’t realize there’d be so many from which to choose, she said. Put in contact with the musician, they asked him to meet them at the store, where they bought him an Ibanez acoustic-electric guitar, a case and a small Fishman amplifier.

“Not only did he replace the equipment, he replaced it with better equipment,” said the lanky Mortensen, who, dressed in a snap-button Western shirt and straw cowboy hat, played that new guitar at Bethel Retirement Community in Modesto on Thursday afternoon.

In an hourlong set, he introduced songs with comments, stories and jokes. “I dedicate this song to all the people we know ... whose noses are just a little bit too big for their own good,” Mortensen said, launching into Hank Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business.”

Other old favorites included the folk song “Wabash Cannonball,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.”

His strong, expressive singing was accented by occasional yodels.

Before playing “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Mortensen told the crowd, “I always love coming to Bethel. You give me a warm welcome no matter how bad I feel – or sound.”

Among his audience of at least 30 people – mostly residents, but some family members and staff – Mortensen’s songs and stories drew many smiles. Some faces were harder to read, but tapping toes indicated folks were enjoying the music. “I love doing this. ... It’s not the music. When I look out in that audience and I see people that have no reason to smile smiling, I know I’m getting through to them. I know my job is done,” he said.

Activities assistant Bea Friedman even had a few of the more spry residents up and dancing. Among them was Melvin Clary, 81. “I’m a country and western guy, too,” Clary said after Mortensen’s program. “I love to sing. I love to yodel. … We’re always blessed every time he comes.”

Mortensen has been performing at Bethel for about two years. He also regularly plays at other places, including Pacifica Senior Living and La Sierra Care Center, both in Merced; Break Adult Day Health Care and Anberry Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, both in Atwater; Hale Aloha Convalescent Hospital in Ceres; and St. Francis Assisted Care Living in Turlock.

As a younger man, he started working in law enforcement, he said, but tired of that. Over the years, he’s been a jack of all trades, Mortensen said, doing maintenance, repair, painting and other work. “This is my income now,” he said.

He plays five to six days a week, he said, averaging two performances a day. Some days, he’ll play as many as five times. But when that happens, “I start croaking by the end of the day.”

He has a full schedule lined up for July. He’s so booked, he said, that after undergoing an angioplasty procedure Friday morning, he headed home Friday afternoon and has a performance scheduled in Turlock on Saturday morning.

All possible because of a good Samaritan.

“I’ve never had anybody do something like that for me, and all I can say about that is, I’m very, very, very grateful and I know God will bless them for that. ...

“I have traveled extensively over the last 10 years up and down California and I can tell you Modesto is not the exception, it’s that way all over. There’s good people everywhere – you just have to find them.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327