By David Lias
I’d like to throw out a suggestion – and I know I’m hardly wise enough to offer dead-on, always correct advice in this column.
But just hear me out.
When you pick up the phone and the person on the other end has evidently dialed a wrong number, don’t simply dismiss the call and hang up (except for those dreaded recorded political messages we’ll likely be hearing soon).
On a Friday afternoon in mid-November, 2010, John Check evidently misdialed his telephone, and connected with me instead of the person he intended to call.
The first moments of our conversation were a bit clumsy, as you can imagine. He didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t know him. So we chatted, at first, about that. And to give him a point of reference, I let him know he had called the Plain Talk, and was talking to the paper’s editor.
If memory serves, he tried to explain that he was trying to reach someone who wanted to hear him play his concertina.
I replied that I wasn’t sure I had ever heard a concertina performance. Accordion, yes. (I’ve covered a few polka festivals). All I knew was a concertina was different from an accordion, and I wanted to hear one. Plus, I thought it would be neat to do a story about a man, now residing in Vermillion, who possessed such musical talent.
He invited me to his apartment. We met the next day, early in the afternoon. Three hours later (a very FULL three hours) I left, my notebook bursting with information and my mind and soul touched in a special way. That’s one thing about the job of a newspaperman – you get to meet a lot of people. A lot of normal, everyday, hard-working people.
And every once in a while, you get to meet an extraordinary person.
John Check was extraordinary.
It was with sadness that I discovered, earlier this week, that his obituary had landed in my work e-mail. While editing it, I recalled that wonderful afternoon we spent together.
He was a retired professor – a scholar. But we spent most of that afternoon talking about music. About how we were first introduced to it. My dad and uncle were both dance band trumpet players in their youth, and were constantly singing and whistling tunes from the “Great American Songbook” to pass the drudgery that always accompanied the tedious task of milking a huge herd of Holsteins.
John grew up on a farm, too, during the Great Depression. He told me of how he received a harmonica when he was a young boy. His brothers did, too. He was the only one, however, that seemed to be interested in making music.
Music changed his life. After mastering the concertina as a teenager, 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 earned a doctorate in psychology, and taught and lectured on a Wisconsin university campus during the week and communicated with a completely different audience in a completely different way during the weekend, when he was on stage in a dance hall.
His students often heard him play on local radio stations, and would provide positive reviews.
“In a way, you are communicating with people, because they are listening – not just to one person, but to everyone in the hall,” John 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.”
We talked at length about how important music is to one’s existence. And, he noted that he would never, ever stop performing or composing.
“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.”
I’m certain that all the harpists that hang out around the Pearly Gates have received orders to “take five” and give their fingers a rest from all that plucking.
John and his concertina have arrived. And the music is indeed heavenly.
Editor’s note: Read more about the “Polka Professor” here: