Milan Opacich was a regional and national treasure who kept alive the music and heritage of the Slavic peoples, taught generations to build instruments and play music and so loved America and American music that he’s honored in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.
Opacich, 84, died Monday morning.
“He wasn’t just for Serbians or Croatians. He was for everybody,” said Nick Tarailo, owner of Bronko's in Crown Point.
“We called Milan The Professor, because he ended up teaching kids how to build instruments at Purdue Calumet. He taught the three tamburitza groups in Gary,” said Tarailo.
Opacich also collected tidbits about the history of the Eastern European people both in Europe and in Northwest Indiana, Tarailo said.
“Anything about history, Milan just grabbed onto and passed it on to others,” he said. “He was a sweet, sweet man. He had a wealth of knowledge. He was amazing.”
Born in Gary on April 12, 1928, Opacich was the son of a Serbian father and Croatian mother, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.
The musical traditions of his community and his heritage led Opacich to teach himself to play the tamburitza, a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin, when he was 18. While working as an apprentice tool and die maker, he made his first tamburitza out of a turtle shell when he was 23.
Later he switched to the Yugoslavian cello, an instrument he encouraged Tarailo to take up.
“He told me ‘This is my instrument. I want you to learn how to play it’,” Tarailo recalled.
For decades, Opacich wrote articles for Serb World Magazine USA.
During 2004, Opacich published a book, “Tamburtiza America” that combined 22 years worth of stories he wrote for the magazine. The 300-page book took three years to compile and features 200 photos of bands and musicians across America.
That same year, Opacich was one of 12 people who received the country’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts for his contributions to cultural heritage.
He was recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts and members of Congress during a Capital Hill ceremony and performed at Lisner Hall on the campus of George Washington University.
Tarailo said Opacich's love of country and western music was another part of his life. In 1980, Opacich received a call from his country western idol Roy Acuff, who asked him to come to Nashville because he had a tamburitza that needed repair work.
Today, two exhibits in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville display instruments hand-crafted by Opacich for Acuff.
Much of Opacich’s work is also part of the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church museum.
“He showed so many people how to perpetuate our ethnicity,” Tarailo said. “He was amazing."