Last summer, Spokane Valley native and national grand champion fiddler Tony Ludiker watched his life go up in smoke.
After decades of playing and teaching in the Spokane area, he’d been performing at the Flying W Ranch in Colorado Springs for six years when wildfires burned the ranch to the ground, leaving the recent kidney cancer survivor without a job or health insurance.
This January, Ludiker learned his cancer had returned. To help offset medical expenses, a group of longtime fiddling friends in Spokane are holding a benefit concert and silent auction on Wednesday at West Valley High School at 6 p.m.
His daughter Kimber Ludiker’s bluegrass band, Della Mae, is headlining the event and local youth fiddling troupe Pearl Snaps will open the evening. Tony Ludiker is flying in for the concert.
“I feel very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve been involved in fiddling for 40 years. Until a few years ago it was basically in Spokane. I’ve been so involved in it and trained so many people. … They are all friends and feel like family.”
Ludiker joined the fiddling family as a fifth-grader, after falling in love with the violin during a strings demonstration. While learning the violin he began playing old-time fiddle tunes and started competing in 1974.
“I got totally excited about it,” he said. “I’m a perfectionist. I liked the idea of competing and doing well and having fun at the contests with people.”
Ludiker went on to win five national fiddle championships, and he won every year he competed at the Washington State Open Division championship over a 19-year span.
He also played with the Coeur d’Alene Symphony as concertmaster, performed with Rod Stewart and Ray Price and toured South Korea, as well as training numerous area musicians.
“I can’t think of another fiddler that has the quality of sound that he plays. Every single note is perfect. He’s fun to listen to and he’s fun to watch. I just think he is brilliant,” said Dawn Ehrenstrasser, one of Ludiker’s former students and a benefit organizer. “As a teacher he is so patient. He’d sit and teach you anything you want to learn. … He is very kind and very supportive.”
For Ehrenstrasser, the benefit is a chance to give back to her mentor.
“When I was in my 20s going through a rough time, he saved my life. He was there for me, brought me to God. Through that and through taking fiddle lessons, he’s enriched my life so much I’d do anything for him,” she said.
In preparation for the auction, she’s been taking opening bids on some of the donations, such as an antique violin with custom setup by Junior Marriott, fiddling lessons, original artwork and several LP recordings, including a sealed Terry Morris record with accompanying CD.
Organizers hope to raise $5,000 to $10,000 to help offset Ludiker’s medical bills, Ehrenstrasser said.
After surgery for renal cancer last spring, Ludiker said he had a clean scan in July. When the Waldo Canyon fire ended his job, medical follow-up became cost prohibitive.
“It was devastating, personally and professionally. As it turned out, medically too,” he said of the fire. “I would have been able to have another set of scans. I’d already satisfied my deductible. Maybe I would have caught this quicker. A month or two earlier would have been nice.”
After the fire Ludiker moved to California to play with the Doo-Wah Riders but began having stomach problems in November.
“I never said to myself this could be the cancer back. … I thought it was gastritis or an ulcer,” he said, describing how he’d play a gig, then go to bed.
During his last performance in January, Ludiker threw up between each set and ended up in the ER two days later.
“They gave me the bad news that I had multiple masses in my abdomen,” he said. “It’s kind of crummy for sure.”
Ludiker said doctors told him the best treatment option is the drug Sutent, which attacks the cancer’s ability to build a blood supply and may shrink the tumors. It costs thousands a month.
“What do you do when you don’t have insurance?” he asked. “I’m as broke as broke can be.”
Thanks to a band supporter in California, Ludiker was able to see an oncologist. He also financially qualified to receive Sutent free for a year and is three weeks into his first course. “I feel like it’s working,” he said on Monday, adding that in the past two weeks he regained enough strength to play a few toe-tapping songs.
Still, the medical bills are piling up and Ludiker said he’s grateful for the support of his fiddling family.
“It’s very humbling and gratifying that there are people out there who care,” he said. “The fiddle family is an incredible, incredible bunch of people.”