Michael McCormic, Jr.
BATTLE GROUND — Darcy Schmitt and Brent Jeffries are not your typical duo. They may not be married, but they share nearly every waking hour of their day. They may not be related, but they do call the same woman “mom.” They may not be able to understand each other all the time, but they both fluently speak the language of music.
Anybody who knows them will tell you that the two are nearly inseparable — and with good reason. Jeffries, who is blind and mentally impaired, needs Schmitt to help him get through life, and Schmitt, the choir director at Battle Ground High School, relies on Jeffries’ savant-level piano abilities both in and out of the classroom.
When Jeffries was born, the only abnormal thing about him was the fact that he was a twin. Brent and Trent Jeffries, born prematurely on May 11, 1957, were both placed in an oxygen chamber because of their early arrival. Tragically, a doctor’s error resulted in the twins receiving too much oxygen, killing Trent and rendering Brent blind and mentally disabled. His Norwegian parents were encouraged to institutionalize their surviving son, but they chose to take him home and raise him to the best of their ability.
Brent’s first real experience with music came from his parents when he was still an infant.
“The dad played accordion, and he would put little baby Brent on his chest and play accordion, and his mom would hold Brent on her lap and play piano,” Schmitt explains, noting that Brent was surrounded by music throughout the first years of his life.
The real miracle came by accident when Jeffries was four years old. After some childish behavior during a piano demonstration resulted in him being seated alone on a piano bench away from the rest of the group, he began to play along with the performer. They would soon discover that Jeffries not only had a gift for piano, but also possessed perfect pitch, meaning he can identify and produce any note simply by hearing it.
Every day, Jeffries accompanies Schmitt to her choir room at Battle Ground High School, where the two have worked side by side for years. They spend the school day together; Schmitt teaches and directs the choir, while Jeffries acts as their accompanist. One might expect that his blindness hinders the choir because he cannot sight-read, but in fact, the opposite is true.
Jeffries’ impeccable memory allows him to recall thousands of songs on demand, while his training and perfect pitch allow him to play these songs in any key and style requested. Schmitt explains that her students are some of Brent’s biggest fans. On May 11, his 60th birthday, students in every choir class came in to sing “Happy Birthday” and bring him Pop-Tarts, one of his favorite snacks.
While Jeffries and Schmitt are co-workers between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., the rest of the day, they are family.
“We have a really good team,” says Schmitt. “I help him do the things he needs to do in life and he plays for me.”
Schmitt has been Jeffries’ legal guardian since 1979. The pair live together, each giving something and getting something in return. As Schmitt puts it, “I have a house, he has his own stuff, we have a life.”
When Schmitt first encountered Jeffries at Hudson’s Bay High School in 1975, she was 15 and he was 17. Jeffries’ parents had passed away, and he was living at the blind school in Vancouver.
“We had both been invited to perform at a school board meeting,” Schmitt recalls. “I walked in and there was Brent, sitting at the piano. It was kind of an unfortunate dressing; his clothes were very outdated and it was kind of weird.”
As soon as he began to tickle the ivories, however, Schmitt knew she had to work with him, and so began their partnership that has since lasted nearly 45 years. Schmitt would walk to the blind school to sing with Jeffries, learning how to work with him from his piano teacher, Robert “Sparky” Sherman. Soon, Jeffries was staying with Darcy’s family during holidays. Eventually, Schmitt claims he simply “became part of the family.”
In 1977, Schmitt left home to attend Edmonds Community College, believing that Jeffries would be headed to live with his Aunt in Seattle. To her surprise, Jeffries’ familiar voice greeted her one day on campus, and the two discovered that they had by chance ended up at the same college. Not long after, Jeffries’ aunt fell ill, and he once again went back to live with Schmitt. The two have been together ever since. Jeffries grew to call Schmitt’s mother “mom,” and her dad “Miles Baby Feet” (A story Darcy claims is an article all on its own).
Schmitt and Jeffries’ odd but functional relationship has not been a bed of roses, by any means.
“It’s kind of like having brother and sister, only I boss him around a little bit more,” says Schmitt. “He can be a real jerk sometimes, too.”
When the occasional quarrel arises between the two, Jeffries will threaten to go stay with “Mom,” while Schmitt happily volunteers to drive him there. The internal struggles, however, pale in comparison to the struggle of Jeffries’ bout with tongue cancer.
‘‘It was scary to think about not having somebody in your life who had been in your life since you were 15 years old,” she recalls.
While doctors were able to remove the cancer from Brent’s body, Schmitt was left with some serious dilemmas regarding his treatment. When the time came to radiate the affected area, Schmitt was told that depending on the direction at which the radiation was administered, Jeffries would likely lose either his teeth or his hearing. Because of his blindness, Schmitt chose the option that was least likely to affect any of his remaining four senses.
“I already knew the answer to that one,” she claims. “Brent can live without his teeth, but he can’t live without his hearing.”
To repair the tongue after surgery, doctors planned to remove muscle from Jeffries’ arm. Because losing muscle tissue from his arm could hinder his ability to play piano, Schmitt requested the muscle be taken from his leg instead. Fortunately, the tumors had shrunk enough by the time of the surgery that no muscle tissue needed to be taken at all.
Today, Jeffries and Schmitt carry on as they have for the past 40 years. They spend their weekdays at Battle Ground High School, Schmitt teaching her students and Jeffries spending the day with all of his friends. When work ends, Schmitt, who is musically gifted in her own respects, occasionally performs at gigs across the Portland-Vancouver area, bringing Jeffries along to accompany her.
Jeffries, in turn, has a roof over his head and food on his plate, gets a warm shower every morning and spends the days doing something many only dream of: making music he loves with somebody who loves him.