Valerie Crockett, folk musician, advocate for disabled, 53

By Talia Whyte
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2009

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Valerie A. (Orchinik) Crockett, a folk singer, musician, and songwriter, died at Rose Monahan Hospice Home in Worcester Sunday after a three-year battle with leiomyosarcoma, a type of cancer. She was 53.

She will be best remembered for her contributions to the local folk music scene and her dedication to helping her disabled daughter, Emily, navigate Harvard University.

“She was the single biggest reason I survived my disability in school,’’ said Emily Crockett of Worcester. “I will always remember her as a beautiful woman.’’

Born in Philadelphia, Mrs. Crockett graduated magna cum laude from Clark University in Worcester in 1978 with a degree in sociology and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Although Mrs. Crockett had a strong interest in mathematics and childhood education, she also loved music.

She met the man she would marry, Walter, shortly after graduation and formed the band Crockett with Duke Levine, who went on to become a nationally recognized musician. They played across New England for four years before suspending their musical careers to start a family. After a brief stint in the band Sugar Mama and the Bad Dads, the couple formed the acoustic band Valerie & Walter Crockett and the Oxymorons in 1994. The Oxymorons made four studio recordings and performed in many coffeehouses, concerts, and special events, including three appearances at the Boston Folk Festival.

“She was a unique person, because she was without guile, so she had no enemies,’’ said Walter Crockett, of Worcester. “Everyone loved her smile and great voice.’’

Longtime family friend Paul Della Valle of Worcester remembers playing his harmonica and having weekly jam sessions in the Crocketts’ kitchen with other local folk musicians. He was fond of her great sense of humor, musical talents, and compassionate spirit.

“Valerie was a wonderful person to be around,’’ said Della Valle. “She lived the way she really wanted to live. She was a rare jewel.’’

Dick Pleasants, folk music disc jockey on WUMB-FM 91.9 Boston, had the Crocketts on his radio show many times over the years. He dedicated part of his show Thursday afternoon to Mrs. Crockett.

“Valerie and Walter blended so well together,’’ he said. “They did great music over the years, and the folk music world has lost a talented voice.’’

Mrs. Crockett was also a dedicated mother and an advocate for the disabled. In 1991, doctors found two golf-size tumors in the brain of her daughter Emily, who was then 6. At the time, the survival rate of those with the disorder was slim. Despite attempted surgeries, the tumors left Emily legally blind and paralyzed the left side of her body.

After the diagnosis, Mrs. Crockett gave up music to help guide her daughter through many successful battles with the Worcester public schools and Harvard. She was a member of the Bay State Council of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. Also, she was a former vice president of the board of Audio Journal.

Emily’s first year at Harvard was chronicled in a 2005 series in the Globe. When she started classes, Mrs. Crockett worried that her daughter would be socially isolated.

“Her happiness has so much impact on her health that I can’t stand it when she’s not really happy,’’ Mrs. Crockett said to the Globe.

Today, Emily Crockett is still at Harvard, taking classes part time and studying statistics. While she said the class workload can be tough, she is happy about the accomplishments she has made academically and socially.

“I am on the 10-year plan,’’ she said with a laugh. “When I do graduate, I hope to become a statistician. All of this would not have been possible without the love and help of my mother.’’

In addition to her daughter and her husband of 30 years, Mrs. Crockett leaves a son, Jackson of Worcester; her father Carlton Orchinik, and her stepmother, Beth, of Drexel Hill, Pa.; two brothers, Miles Orchinik of Phoenix and Jeffery Orchinik of Dresher, Pa.; and two sisters, Leah and Julia Orchinik, both of Drexel Hill, Pa.

A memorial service will be held today at 1 p.m. in United Congregational Church, 6 Institute Road in Worcester. Burial will be private.