Nobody at Minneapolis' St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church was quite ready for musician Peter Ostroushko to speak at his own fundraiser after he'd suffered a stroke. Not ready for the humor. The honesty. The warmth. The grace. The inspiration.
Seated in a wheelchair, the virtuoso Minneapolis mandolinist/fiddler explained that the stroke had left his left arm useless. "I can't play an instrument," he pointed out. "My voice is compromised from the stroke." Just then church bells rang. "Hello?" Ostroushko responded. Everyone in the overflow crowd smiled.
During his 20-minute ad-libbed monologue, the musician, one of Minnesota's finest in any genre, understood his situation, but his mind was as sharp as ever. "I want to dispel a myth," he said. "I got a phone call from someone who left a message on the phone that they wouldn't be making it to my last concert. I'm not playing. This can't possibly be my last concert."
Ostroushko, who worked with artists ranging from Bob Dylan to the Minnesota Orchestra, died Wednesday afternoon of heart failure. He was 67.
"We have never known a better guy," his daughter, Anna Ostroushko, posted on Facebook. "Please listen to or play some music tonight in his honor."
Garrison Keillor, who relied on Ostroushko's wide range of musicality for more than 250 episodes of his radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," said Lake Wobegon "lost a dear family friend."
"Peter had a real calling and stayed true to it," Keillor said via e-mail. "To me, it was only a show, but to him it was church, and when he picked up a mandolin, he played for his folks, his people, for Marge [his wife] and Anna, the family, for northeast Minneapolis. He played the blues and made it Ukrainian. He could play 'I Saw Her Standing There,' and she was standing in the middle of Kiev. He never tried to find himself. He knew who he was the whole time."
Whether he played with big names like Willie Nelson or contributed to Ken Burns documentaries, Ostroushko was ultimately a northeast Minneapolis guy.
"Peter Ostroushko was a stone-cold, self-taught virtuoso who helped define Minnesota as we know it, the best this state has to offer," said Minneapolis singer-songwriter Paul Metsa. "A triple threat on guitar, violin, and mandolin, he also had a beautiful singing voice. A gentle giant, and when he talked, we listened."
During Ostroushko's speech in July 2018 at the fundraiser, seven months after his stroke, he shared a history of his musical life. He told stories about his days with the Sky Blues Water Boys playing country music in downtown Minneapolis in the 1970s and the group's singer, Becky Reimer Thompson, giving him driving lessons in a borrowed sports car with a stick shift. And about traveling with musician Dáithí Sproule and learning that the Irishman loved Fred Astaire so much he'd do the dapper one's dance steps in their shared motel room. "He doesn't do it in public," Ostroushko joked.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Ostroushko grew up in northeast Minneapolis, picking up his dad's mandolin at age 3, eventually learning to play tunes from Ukrainian folk songs to jazz. In 1974, at age 21, he was summoned from his sick bed with pneumonia for his first time in a recording studio, for a session with Minnesota's most famous music maker, Dylan, on "Blood on the Tracks" at Sound 80 in south Minneapolis.
The next morning the still-ill Ostroushko woke up and thought he'd dreamed about recording with Dylan. No, a fellow musician confirmed, it really happened.
A versatile multi-instrumentalist and fast study, Ostroushko was welcomed by Keillor as a regular band member on "A Prairie Home Companion," where he accompanied countless performers, including Emmylou Harris and John Hartford. He also had a presence on television, appearing on "Austin City Limits," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Late Night with David Letterman." His music was heard in Burns' documentaries on Mark Twain and Lewis & Clark. He earned a regional Emmy for his soundtrack to the 2005 TPT series "Minnesota: A History of the Land."
Not confined to any genre, Ostroushko played Carnegie Hall with the Minnesota Orchestra, and his compositions have been performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Moscow's Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, among others.
From 1985 to 2010, Ostroushko released more than 15 albums under his own name, most for St. Paul-based Red House Records, including 2012's career-defining compilation "The Mando Chronicles," spanning genres from bluegrass to classical and ethnic music from Brazil to Italy. He recorded with a cavalcade of Minnesota musicians, from jazz guitarist Dean Magraw to pop pianist Lorie Line. And he performed an annual holiday concert for many years.
"I was blown away by his talent many times over," Twin Cities singer and friend Mary Jane Alm said. "We were so lucky to have him in our musical universe."
Ostroushko felt that "the music that moved through him was a gift from the creator," said his wife, Marge. "It was his joy to share those parts of his soul with the world."
Ostroushko was proud of his heritage and his Northeast neighborhood. When he gave up booze in 1982, he went to Nye's Polonaise, the neighborhood landmark, for his last drink — "a zesty martini," as he once put it.
After his stroke, Ostroushko continued to work with mandolin students and host a podcast, "My Life and Time as a Radio Musician," based on his decades of work with "A Prairie Home Companion."
"The last three years have been difficult for him health-wise, but he found real purpose in listening to hours and hours of performances," Keillor wrote on Facebook.
In addition to his daughter Anna and wife Marge, Ostroushko is survived by a sister, Ludmilla, and brothers George and Taras. Services will be held at a later date, with lots of music.
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this report.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @JonBream