The Polka Professor

An attempt to sum up John Check's life in a concise manner isn't easy. He's done so much in 89 years.

John Check cant help but smile as he plays familiar tunes on his concertina. I didnt have any instructor; I learned how to play my instrument by myself, and I learned how to arrange and compose, John said. I guess I was just lucky. (Photo by David Lias)

He's a retired teacher and scholar, serving as a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan for seven years, and at the University of Wisconsin for over 22 years. He's written and published 55 professional articles, presented numerous speeches and seminars to schools and national associations, and been honored by his peers in education, receiving awards for distinguished teaching.

Engage in a conversation about his career in education, and the talk likely will be lengthy. What's sure to bring a smile to his face, however, as he sits at a table in his apartment at Dakota Gardens in Vermillion, is a topic far removed from academia.

It involves dance halls, parties, weddings and celebrations.

John reaches down, snaps open the latches on a brown case sitting on the floor near his table, and places, on his lap, something that is rarely seen in these parts.

At first glance, it looks like a box, all a-glitter, the light bouncing off its polished steel and chrome exterior, inlayed with mother of pearl and beautiful shapes and patterns. On each end of the box are rows and rows of white buttons, and a strap that John slides each hand under. In a simple, nearly autonomous motion, he spread his hands apart, stretching out the box. And then he pushed his hands inward, his fingers darting over the buttons.

And John's concertina was brought to life, inhaling and exhaling with each squeeze, each breath filling his apartment with a wonderful sound. It comes so easy to him now. He's had years of practice. When he was 14, John played at house parties, weddings and dances near his farm home in Rosholt, WI. By the time he was 18 and had left home to attend college, he had formed his own six-piece orchestra. The music just followed him. He played with the Michigan Dutchmen from 1959 to 1966. The orchestra was regularly featured on WJRT-TV. And from 1966 through 1995, he was a member of the Wisconsin Dutchmen musical group; the musicians' sounds were broadcast over the airwaves regularly on WRJQ television.

He also spent plenty of time in a studio during those years as the music of both the Michigan Dutchmen and the Wisconsin Dutchmen were recorded so more and more people could enjoy their sound. In all, John has participated in the recording of 33 albums and 18 CDs. The latest CD, recently recorded by the University of South Dakota and not yet ready for distribution, is entitled, simply, "The Polka Professors."

John grew up on a farm where he was constantly exposed to what he terms "ethnic music."

"My family was all farmers. None of them played music. None of them went (to school) beyond the eighth grade. I was the black sheep of the family; I went to high school, and none of my siblings did. I had some good teachers, and I had some bad teachers, and so, I was challenged (in my teaching career).

"My career was being a professor of psychology in Michigan and Wisconsin," he said. "What brought me to music? It's hard for me to describe. It's like trying to describe where you come up with a composition. It's something that comes to one's mind, and keeps on circling."

And yet another of John's talents is revealed. He's not just an educator, a musician, and a family man. He's a composer. On his table is a full sheet of music that, at first glance, looks like it came from a music store.

Closer inspection reveals that every note, flat, sharp and rest symbol was hand-sketched on the paper's staves by John.

"I just wrote this waltz two days ago," he said, rather nonchalantly.

"I was sitting in that chair," pointing to a piece of furniture near his apartment window, "and I didn't feel much like watching television, and some melody was coming in my mind. So I said to myself, 'Hey, I better capture this,' because that's one thing about anything that's creative. It may not come back again. So I wrote it down, and this is what came out," he said, lifting up his composition. "If these things happen to a person, then you should take advantage of it. You should capture it, because one week from now, I might forget it."

John received his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

"While working on my bachelor's degree, I lost it," he said, laughing. "I got married. I met my wife while I finishing up my bachelor's degree."

John originally studied to be a school administrator, and continued his education in graduate school. His major professor, Herbert J. Klausmeier, not only urged him to continue his studies and receive his Ph.D. He also lent him money to pay for his studies, allowing John to receive a doctorate in educational psychology, with a minor in speech.

"I'm glad of that (minor)," he said, "because I gave numerous speeches and seminars afterwards."

He's also glad that the urge to produce music followed him as he attended college, and worked on his advanced degree in psychology.

"I didn't have to get as much money from Klausmeier," John said. "I had an orchestra, and I played every Saturday. At least it bought some hamburger, if nothing else."

By the time John finished his doctorate he was a family man. He and his wife, Teckla, were the proud parents of a son and a daughter. His daughter �" Deborah Check Reeves �" is no stranger to Vermillion townsfolk or the campus community at the University of South Dakota. For years, she has served as an associate professor of music and curator of education and woodwind instruments at the National Music Museum. His orchestras specialized in polkas, waltzes, schottisches and big band music. Not bad for someone who has never had a formal music lesson.

"I didn't have any instructor; I learned how to play my instrument by myself, and I learned how to arrange and compose," John said. "I guess I was just lucky."

Music, he said, has always been an important, natural extension of his life.

"I had three brothers and myself on the farm. My mother had died when I was 2 years old, and this was during the Depression," John said. "My father went to Stevens Point, and bought four small harmonicas for each boy. I was the only one that played it, and learned how. The others had no interest in music."

He could read a bit of music as a teenager, and concertina music, he said, is written using numbers, which helped him master the complicated instrument.

The biggest boost John received, he said, came from fellow musicians while he was in college.

"The students that I selected �" they had heard I had played with an orchestra, and they wanted to start a band �" and all of my fellow students in the band were music majors," he said. "I learned a great deal from them. That's how I learned how to arrange music."

John plays a German-style concertina that it is as complex as is beautiful. The instrument is bisonoric (each button produces a different note on the push and the draw of the bellows); is diatonic or semi-chromatic; and has reeds mounted on a long plate, with separate chambers for each set of reeds.

"The reason it's called a concertina is that a person could go into a dance hall and play all by yourself," he said. "It was the ability to play in concert.

"It's very, very difficult, and you might ask, 'why would anyone want to play the concertina?' I think the answer is it has a distinct sound to it. I like the sound. Musically speaking, it's called timbre," he said. "I love it."

For the last 22 years, John has forged ahead with life without Teckla. When she was only 58, cancer took her away.

He moved to Vermillion in April 2008 to be closer to Debbie. "I could have stayed in Wisconsin; I have a lot of friends there … but none of my family were there. Debbie kept reminding me, 'Dad, you've got to come to South Dakota.'"

One day, John, daughter Debbie, son, John David, and other local musicians performed at a Brown Bag Lunch event at the National Music Museum here in Vermillion. About three months later, an apartment to John's liking became available at Dakota Gardens, and he decided to take it.

"I want to be close to some of my children. My oldest son is in Massachusetts, but I don't want to live there," he said.

Accompanying John as he made the move from Wisconsin to Vermillion was his recording equipment, his concertina, and his love for music.

"It motivates and drives a person," he said. "There's what we call a vocation, and an avocation. I had three priorities in life. My family came first, my teaching came second, and my music, my avocation, came third. I loved teaching."

John, Debbie, John David and others have performed together at Raziel's, and at Vermillion's Ribs, Rods & Rock 'n Roll event in late summer. Last week was a busy one, with performances at the nursing home, Dakota Gardens, and at a piano recital.

"For Christmas, Debbie, Gary, Rolf Olson, and others are going to put on the brass quintet recital," he said. "I honestly believe that a person who doesn't play music lives a dull life."

John, whose spent much of his life lecturing and giving speeches, also found himself reaching out each weekend in a special way every time he performed in a dance hall.

"In a way, you are communicating with people, because they are listening �" not just to one person, but to everyone in the hall," he said. "To some degree, it's like giving a speech to a crowd, except that you do it with music, and not through your voice."

He agrees with the oft-mentioned sentiment that music is a universal language.

John is also certain that he'll be playing tunes for an eternity.

"When I die, God promised me that I'll have a teaching position," he said with a grin. "And incidentally, he also promised that I can take my concertina with me."

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