Gary Reber, who manages gifts to the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools, saw the in-kind donation form pop up on his computer screen, saw the number and the donor, and figured somebody was having some fun.
He recognized the donor's name -- Dennis Zager -- and knew the song that rocketed him and partner Rick Evans to stardom in 1969 -- “In the Year 2525.”
It’s not 2525, but the song that made two Nebraska boys famous is about man’s inclination to do himself in, and if there were ever a year that seemed possible . . . .
So, yeah. Ha, ha.
“I thought it was a joke,” Reber said, or as he kept reading the detail on the donation form, at the very least a typo.
Thursday morning, 696 guitars, still in their boxes, landed at the Lincoln Public Schools distribution center, the likes of which Lance Nielsen has never seen.
“This is probably the largest donation we’ve ever received,” said Nielsen, the district’s music supervisor. “We really appreciate it. This is an opportunity. If you get a guitar in a student's hands and they’ve not done music in other areas, this might be the thing that gets them really excited."
Which is exactly what Zager had in mind, said his son, Dennis Zager Jr., who runs Zager Guitars with his dad.
The two had been contemplating how they could give back for some time. Then the elder Zager did an interview with Forbes in April, looking back at his career and the song that made him and his partner famous.
Something about that interview and seeing the hardships caused by the pandemic sweeping the country made the father and son decide this was the time.
Putting guitars in young people’s hands seemed the natural way to pay it forward.
“Dad’s dyslexic,” said the younger Zager. “He had a hard time in school and the guitar really changed his life.”
He took to it immediately, taught himself to play, and excelled, free of the challenges reading presented.
The Zagers say the donation to LPS is just the beginning.
“Our goal is to do this all across the United States,” Zager Jr. said. “The whole COVID thing really set it off. You see all these kids not able to go to school in certain states.”
Maybe some of those kids could learn to play the guitar at home, he said, because the instruments come with access to an extensive library of online lessons created by the elder Zager.
But they wanted to start in Lincoln, because it's home. Both the elder Zager and his son graduated from Southeast. Zager Sr.’s wife -- his son’s mom -- graduated from Lincoln High.
Lincoln is where Zager met Evans. He introduced himself after seeing Evans play at a talent show at a Nebraska Wesleyan fraternity, and before long the two were performing together.
The elder Zager traveled the world after “In the Year 2525” hit the top of the charts, he and Evans were featured in Time Magazine and their hit played in the background on TV during the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.
He came back to Nebraska about the time his son was born, and opened Zager Guitars in Lincoln. He designed a guitar that was easier to play and not so hard on musicians’ fingers -- a slimmer neck and special system so players don’t have to press so hard on the strings.
They build guitars in the shop behind their home in Lincoln but have shops in California and Nevada. They sell high-end guitars to professionals (they were just finishing one for Lady Gaga when Zager did the Forbes interview) and they have an entry-level guitar that's sold online and at big chains such as Walmart and Target.
The pandemic has dramatically increased their online sales, the younger Zager said, so they produce a lot of guitars -- and nearly 700 of them now belong to LPS.
Nielsen said the guitars will be distributed to nearly all schools in the district. All the high schools now offer guitar classes. The donation will help make sure there are enough guitars -- especially in the pandemic when they try not to share instruments. They’ll also be incorporated into elementary and middle school music programs.
Zager Jr. said he’s happy to have the instruments remain at school.
“Anything we can do to help,” he said.
Nielsen is convinced it will. He started guitar classes when he taught at East High, and he saw students in those classes who weren’t in any other music classes, but found a connection there.
“For some of these students, it’s what kept them in school,” he said.
He makes intricate eggs that take 220 pieces of paper, some even more. Giant slinkies with 770 pieces. Before the pandemic, the young man with a passion for folding paper into beautiful creations had begun a fledgling business.