Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jamming with the Greatest Generation

When I started researching the life and career of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, in 2006, I was thrilled to discover that some of his former band students were still alive.  I’ve been fortunate to meet a few of them, like Leonard Jung and Francis Schellinger, and hear firsthand what it was like to play in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band.  Sadly, I've missed out on meeting others who have died within the last decade, including Chester Heinzel, Herb Streitz and now, Adrian F. Opitz.  All of the men I just mentioned served in the U.S. military during World War II and are part of what’s become known – thanks to Tom Brokaw – as the Greatest Generation.

Many of G. Oliver’s former pupils who made it back from the war continued to perform in bands, like Opitz, 94, who died July 28, 2010, at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Cloud.  I didn’t know anything about him until after his death, but because he had Alzheimer’s disease, it’s unlikely I could have interviewed him about his band experiences.  Thankfully, John Decker at the Stearns History Museum conducted an interview of Opitz several years ago, and the transcript is at the museum (I hope to get my own copy soon).

Opitz joined the boys’ band in 1923, at age 8.  He was a drummer in the original band G. Oliver formed when he came to St. Cloud from Bemidji.  Opitz played in the band until he was 21, and then assisted G. Oliver with the band until G. Oliver retired in 1944.

“He’d have something doing and he’d have me come down there and help in the drum section,” Opitz said in the Stearns History Museum interview.
I'm guessing that Adrian Opitz, who played drums, is in this 1929 photo of the St. Cloud Junior and Senior Boys' Bands.  G. Oliver is in the back row, on the right; his son Percy is on the left.
Opitz’s daughter Pamela said her father also told a story about how when he was 21, he and some other former boys’ band members got together with G. Oliver for a drink and a jam session, and G. Oliver told them how nice it was that they finally were old enough to socialize with him.

I’ve never heard this story from anyone else, and I think it’s great fun to imagine G. Oliver jamming with these young men, whom he had instructed since they were barely old enough to carry an instrument.

Optiz served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II on Iwo Jima.  He returned to the St. Cloud area and continued to play in bands until he was in his 60s. 

His daughter Pamela told me recently, “I believe his love of music came from starting out in your great-grandfather’s band.”

It’s rewarding to hear comments like that, not just because I feel a responsibility to preserve my great-grandfather’s memory, but because this project is about something bigger than one larger-than-life type of man.  The men G. Oliver taught are part of his life story, just as he’s a part of their stories.  Woven together, they are a testament to the belief that one individual’s actions do make a difference, and that when people work together, they can accomplish great deeds that inspire future generations.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Joy! Must have been fun at the jam sessions with G. Oliver! :)