Sunday, November 25, 2012

A House Call with Dr. Ted

An unexpected development has both slowed and advanced my progress this month in writing the book about G. Oliver Riggs and the St. Cloud Municipal Band: I found a delightful, 98-year-old source of information!

While studying a list of members of the first boys’ band G. Oliver organized in St. Cloud in 1923, I noticed the name Theodore Papermaster. Cool name! I thought, and filed it away in my brain. An hour later, I was looking at a newspaper article about a piano recital given by G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, in 1924 and noticed the name of one of her students was – you guessed it – Theodore Papermaster. I then checked the list of members from the 1930 boys’ band: yes, there again was Theodore Papermaster.

Who is this Theodore Papermaster, I wondered? He would have to be almost 100 years old – is there any chance he’s still alive? Through an online search, I discovered that he’d been a pediatrician in the Twin Cities for many years, he’d served in World War II, and he had a daughter living in the Twin Cities. I contacted her at work, and the next evening, I heard a strong, clear voice on the other end of the telephone saying:

“I was very well acquainted with G. Oliver Riggs. He came to St. Cloud in 1923, when I was 9 years old, and I was the No. 5 clarinet player in a band of 240. ... The two bandmasters – no, three – that followed him, they were not very satisfactory, so they hired him back. He directed another generation of the band, and I was among that, too.” 
St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, 1924
If I were to create the character of Dr. Theodore C. “Ted” Papermaster for a novel, he would be no match for the real thing (that’s why I am a journalist and not a fiction writer; I find real people so wonderfully fascinating). I knew, based on our brief phone conversation, that I couldn’t have found a more perfect source – someone who not only was in the band from the time G. Oliver formed it in 1923 through 1931, the year of the big trip to Des Moines, but who also knew G. Oliver’s wife and sons (my grandfather Ronald and my great-uncle Percy, who helped direct the bands).

I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to learn more, so on the day before Thanksgiving I visited Ted at his nursing home in the Twin Cities.

He told me he joined the boys’ band with the support of his father, Herman, who played clarinet in the adult municipal band. Herman was a tailor and had a dry cleaning business at 20 Sixth Ave. in downtown St. Cloud (the site is now part of Herberger’s); for a time, Herman rented the building’s upper floor to the city for use as a band rehearsal hall. Ted’s younger brother, Ralph (who died in 2001), later played in the band, too.

G. Oliver was a disciplinarian, Ted said, but he liked him because he was a great director. The only criticism he offered was that G. Oliver occasionally took time during rehearsals to lecture the boys about topics like the importance of staying both physically and mentally fit; Ted said he’d have preferred to spend that time playing music.

From left to right: Dick Strobel, Ted Papermaster, and Ted’s buddy Sidney Kaufman, in 1925.
Ted was in the 150-member band that went to St. Paul in June 1925 to perform at the International Kiwanis Convention. Several months after that event, G. Oliver got in a dispute with the city band committee and resigned. Ted stayed in the band under its next two directors, Albert Koehler (who became ill and died of prostate cancer) and Theodore Steinmetz (a military man who was more of a showman than a director, Ted said), and during the two months or so of direction by J.E. Racicot in early 1928. By the time G. Oliver returned as director, Ted was in high school.

In this 1930 photo, Ted is in the front row, the first clarinet to the right of the drums.
Ted remembers traveling by train to Des Moines in 1931 for the National Junior Chamber of Commerce convention, and the difficulty of trying to sleep in a train full of boys and instruments. He also remembers, on one of the train trips, that the boys were given ham sandwiches to eat. Ted doesn’t eat ham because he’s Jewish; he said his dad, who was a chaperone on that trip, told him to give the ham to one of the other boys and just eat the bread.

Music was an important part of Ted’s boyhood. He took piano lessons for many years from G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, although he never knew her first name. “She was a lovely, lovely lady, a good performer and a wonderful teacher,” he said.

Islea Graham Riggs, an accomplished pianist and teacher
When I showed Ted a 1924 newspaper clipping about a piano recital that lists him as playing a duet with his good friend Sidney Kaufman, and a solo, Beethoven’s “Minuet in G,” he immediately began to hum the Beethoven tune.

Ted graduated from St. Cloud Tech and went on to school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He graduated from medical school in 1938 and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army Air Force Medical Corps in 1942. During World War II, he served in the Mediterranean, rose to the rank of captain and received the Soldier’s Medal.
A photo of Ted as a flight surgeon in World War II
The last time he saw G. Oliver was in 1945, when Ted came home from the war and stopped in to see his old bandmaster. After the war, Ted was an instructor in pediatrics at Louisiana State University and the University of Minnesota, and he began his own practice in 1948 in the Twin Cities.

Although he lost track of Percy after he left St. Cloud, Ted knew that my grandfather Ronald had twin grandsons – my cousins Scott and Brent Riggs – because he was their doctor for a short time after they were born. I was so surprised to learn this – it is indeed a small world! I told Ted that Scott has twin boys of his own now, and that Brent named his younger son Griffin Oliver after G. Oliver (the G. stood for George). Ted was delighted.

I had to end our visit because Ted was getting tired, but I hope to see him again. It’s hard to put into words how meaningful it was to meet him and hear him say, “The happiest days of my life were when I was playing in the band.”

I came away from the interview feeling more convinced than ever of the need to tell the story of the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ band in a book. So, this week, I’ll be back at the writing desk!


  1. It gives one shivers to imagine what a band with 9 baritone saxes sounds like. It's not a configuration I've had the pleasure to have heard. That size organization exists at large public universities today, but not in a municipal band, let alone a band of minor children. Truly amazing.

    1. I wish we had audio recordings of the band from those days. I'd love to hear how it sounded!

  2. I've interviewed Dr. Papermaster as well for a book, and must concur with your description of him -- he is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I felt so lucky to have merited an interview. They don't make people like that anymore.

  3. I'm so glad that you found my blog, and that you also had the experience of interviewing him! What is your book about?

  4. Thanks for your interest! The book was about the pioneering experience in the homesteads near Devils Lake, ND, an area where Dr. Papermaster's grandfather served as Rabbi. A historical segment describing the period and area in detail followed the novel, and I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Ted share his time, memoirs, photographs, and essays. He really is a marvelous man.

    Best of luck on your book - it sounds lovely. I am enjoying your blog!