When Merlin Oehrke walked into that diner last summer, he couldn't have guessed that his lunch would come with a side order of answered prayers.
The 89-year-old retired musician still doesn't know why he ended up in that particular diner – it wasn't one he normally went to. He sat down at the counter and spotted a teenage boy and middle-aged man nearby, going over some sheet music – his kind of music.
“A violin score. It looked like a violin concerto," he says. "I said, 'Lord, I think this is the person.'"
Oehrke walked over and asked the boy if he was a violinist. The teenager, Gabriel Esperon, replied that he was.
Esperon, 17, recalls what happened next: "He said, 'I've been waiting over 20 years for God to send me a violinist to bestow my violin to.'"
That day at the diner, Esperon and his coach had been perusing some music over lunch and going over a game plan for future studies when Oehrke approached them. The teen had been playing seriously since he was about 12 years old and his own violin wasn't all that great. He bought it with the money he earned busking on downtown Fort Lauderdale street corners.
Esperon and his coach, Eric Berken, exchanged stunned glances when this mysterious stranger with the irresistible offer told them his first name.
"Merlin. Like the magician," Esperon says with a laugh.
Oehrke invited Esperon and his teacher to his home to check out the fiddle, which had been stored out of sight for a long time. He had put his own professional career as a violinist aside after his wife, a pianist, passed away. The two had been a musical team since they got married in the early 1950s. There were no violinists among their four children; one of their daughters plays the piano and their only son is a vocalist.
“I have kept it on the top shelf of my closet hoping that someday I would find just the right person that would appreciate it and needed it,” he says.
Oehrke grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, the birthplace of Parker Pens and Chevrolets. He started his music studies at the age of 7. When he was 13 years old, he and his Dad made a special trip to Milwaukee just to buy the violin.
Berken says the moment he saw the instrument, he knew it was something special.
"The first impression I had is that it had to be German because it’s so dark – and the German violins are generally darker wood," he says. "I checked the label inside and it said ‘Johann Stephan Thumhardt.’ And I knew the name – it said ‘1800.’ I tried to make him an offer for it!”
But Oehrke wouldn’t hear of it. He simply handed the violin to Esperon, who tuned it up and started to play.
“And I shuddered," says Oehrke. "I almost cried when I heard the sound that came out of the violin and what he was playing." It was Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor – a composition Oehrke had first learned a long, long time ago.
It's not the only thing the two musicians have in common. For decades, Oehrke and his wife had played with the music ministries of several churches. Esperon plays with Camerata di Magdalena, a youth string ensemble connected with an Episcopal church in Coral Springs. The kids donate all the proceeds from their concerts to a food truck that feeds the homeless.
In the year since the two violinists first met, Merlin Oehrke has become a regular at every one of the ensemble’s concerts. He usually takes a seat in one of the back rows, watching a 17-year-old draw intensity and subtlety out of his old violin.
Except, he no longer refers to it as his – or even Esperon's, for that matter. Considering that chance encounter in the diner a year ago, Oehrke can't help thinking that a certain Third Party is the violin’s true owner.
"If you’ve been in the music ministry – and you and your family have been dedicated to it – all they have and all they own is a gift to you from the Lord," says Oehrke.
"So I say – it’s HIS fiddle!”