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Published: Friday, 1/28/2011

Toledo tax auditor plays in time on downtime

Don Diller's official title is income tax auditor for the City of Toledo. But around One Government Center where he works, he's better known as the "Piano Man."

Whenever Mr. Diller gets a break from sifting through tax forms -- be it lunchtime, a 15-minute breather, or while waiting for the bus home -- he slips down to the lobby and takes a seat at a colorful, hand-painted piano next to the Lucas County commissioners' meeting room. Amid the flurry of people going about their business, his fingers begin to dance across the keys.

The tunes range from classical pieces such as Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," to popular songs from musicals such as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. Occasionally he gets a request from one of the many people who stop to listen and, if he knows the song, he graciously complies.

"We call it Happy Hour," said Norman Box, one of the security guards who works at the front desk and hears Mr. Diller's music almost every day. "It breaks up the monotony of what you do. It's very soothing."

Mr. Diller, 67, has worked at the city's downtown center for five years, but it was only last summer that he took on his voluntary role of in-house piano player. That was when The Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society put the piano in city hall as part of a Pianos for Art project designed to inspire music making in public places. It was painted by local artists Jennifer and John Rockwood, who decorated the piano with pictures of instruments, musicians, and shades of green, orange, yellow, and blue.

Mr. Diller, who studied music as a child and still plays organ at his local church, remembers the first day he came down from his office on the 20th floor to see the piano sitting there.

"I wondered if it was for real," the soft-spoken Mr. Diller recalled. "I asked the guard if I could play it, and he said 'yes.'"

After sounding out the instrument and enjoying its tone and feel, Mr. Diller decided to go down and play it again the next day on his break. But when he reached the piano, he found it was locked. It turned out the building's manager, Mike Sullivan, had fastened the lid to stop untrained visitors banging on the keys. After a discussion in which Mr. Diller agreed not to play during the city's and county's meeting times, Mr. Diller was given the key.

"It's almost like a key to the city," Mr. Diller beamed, as he showed off the little piece of metal.

Since then, Mr. Diller's piano playing has become a regular fixture at One Government Center. He was even honored at a meeting of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners in November, where he was presented with a poem by Lucas County Poet Laureate Joel Lipman. The poem is an ode to Mr. Diller's impact on daily life in the downtown building.

"Don, you turn an afternoon's instant

"Momentarily to song and give us back

"Eloquent notes and fundamental chords," a verse of the poem reads.

Kay Elliott of the Jazz Heritage Society said Mr. Diller's regular playing makes the piano at One Government Center one of the most successful of all of those placed by the art project. She said 14 pianos were set up in various parts of the city, including in the University of Toledo's Student Union, the Huntington Center, and the Toledo Botanical Gardens. Some have been played more than others, she said.

"Art Tatum would be thrilled," Ms. Elliot enthused on hearing about Mr. Diller. "That was what the plan was for the piano and to think that somebody is actually doing it is just thrilling."

Almost anyone who works at One Government Center agrees Mr. Diller adds something special to the environment there.

Tina Kirk, an administrative assistant for the county, said she now spends her lunchtimes in the lobby instead of the cafeteria so she can listen to Mr. Diller's playing. She also listens to him after work.

"It's relaxing after a stressful day," she said. "It just sort of mellows you out."

City tax collector John Bibish is another fan of Mr. Diller's music.

"Whenever he plays, I'm here," Mr. Bibish said. "I think it's an incredible talent. He's contributing a lot more [to the city] than just auditing skills."

Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi said Mr. Diller's playing became a welcome respite during a time of tense budget negotiations at the end of last year. He called the music "a gentle surprise" in otherwise cold and busy surroundings.

"You'd come down here and, you'd never know when it might occur, but there he would be sitting at the piano and it soothed your soul," Mr. Ujvagi said. "There were a number of times when I just stopped and I sat down and just listened."

For Mr. Diller too, playing the piano is an outlet. He said he used to resist practicing the piano as a child, but now he welcomes every chance he gets to sit down and play music.

"It's my sanity sometimes. It gives me a nice break from the stress that comes with work," he said. "Also I think I'm more productive with my work because I can get stuff off my mind and go back fresh."

He's glad to lift the spirits of the people around him too.

"People come in here with a definite attitude and having the soft, gentle music changes that," he said. "I think music contributes a lot to how things are going every day."

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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