If He Builds It, They Will Strum

Alexander McCracken, 85, builds instruments in his spare time. He can't play them, so he asks others to demonstrate the sounds of his creations.

The arthritis is starting to tighten its grip on Alexander McCracken. The 85-year-old retired carpenter's hands are gnarled from years of sanding, sawing, and hammering away at building houses. But that hasn't stopped him from taking up a new craft.

McCracken builds instruments, handcrafted with American woods such as mahogany, cherry and pine. He doesn't know the technique to pluck one of his guitars, violins, violas, banjoes, mandolins, or the more exotic Russian stringed instrument, the balalaika. But he studies the intricacies of his creations, from the length of a violin's neck to the height of the bridge, spending hours to get each measurement just right. 

And then he asks others to play them for him. 

He recently put the finishing touches on his first violin, and turned to the students of Downers Grove District 58 to show him just how it sounds. On Dec. 11, McCracken and his wife Laverne visited Herrick Middle School, along with friend Dr. Chet Robsen. Two students marveled at the violin built of cherry and mahogany, and each took her turn running her bow across the strings. They admired the deep, rich color of the instrument and the finely carved handle. 

"Everything's done by hand," McCracken said.  

Orchestra teacher Lisa Rose was perplexed at first when she received an email from Robsen seeking someone to play a violin handmade by a friend. But if anyone could rise to the occasion, it would be her students at Belle Aire, Henry Puffer, Highland, Pierce Downer or Whittier schools.

They jumped at the chance, she said. An email request fielded dozens of volunteers. The two selected were seventh grader Aleena Albert, and Downers Grove North High School junior Shatien Jordan. 

Play for Him

Many of the guitars the Darien resident built—several of which were given to his grandchildren—were made with wood left over from a gymnasium floor in Westmont. He also has used scrap lumber and tree stumps in his creations. He first attempted a violin a year ago, but was sidetracked by a stroke. Plenty of research, a few failed attempts and "a couple of months" later, he finished.

"It takes time to carve the handle—that's where you spend the time," McCracken said. "Everything is done by hand, and it takes a lot of time to carve that stuff."

Nine of McCracken's instrument creations adorn his walls at home, but he often seeks people to play them. He once asked his garbageman to play for him—and boy, could he, McCracken said. 

McCracken doesn't know what—if anything—he'll build next, as his arthritis is worsening. But he is quite proud of his latest creation.

"At least you can make music with it," he said. 

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