March 13, 2000 Journal Times Music teacher also gives students lessons on life BY ELIZABETH BLAUSTEIN, March 7, 2000 "Johnny Hemkes! What on earth is wrong with you?!" The voice came from above that afternoon, a woman's shriek from a second-story balcony. She was looking down at him, 100 percent disgusted. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" she scolded. Hemkes, then in his early 20s, had just made a delivery to the first floor of her building. That in itself wasn't the problem. This woman was angry that Hemkes was making deliveries at all. "She scolded me for driving a truck," Hemkes says, chuckling as he tells the story. In her opinion, he was wasting his talent behind the wheel of that truck. His calling in life was to make young brass musicians sing. Hemkes, now 81, has since taught thousands of young musicians to play the trumpet, tuba, trombone and French horn. His name is synonymous with brass in Racine and Kenosha counties. "Anybody who plays a brass instrument in Racine knows who Johnny Hemkes is," says current student Katie Spielman, 17. He retired about 15 years ago - old and new students threw him a huge retirement bash and everything - but he just couldn't stop teaching. Local school music teachers started calling. "Just one more student, Johnny," they'd plead. "He kept a couple students, then those couple turned into twice as many and then three times as many," says former student John Dorsey, a music teacher at Horlick High School. That's how it's been his whole life, Hemkes says with a shrug. Someone noticed he could play. Then everyone else in town learned that this trumpet player could teach. "I had figured I'd never teach again," he says. "But they keep on calling." Hemkes, a Racine native, was about 7 years old when he sounded out his first tune on a trumpet. The son of Dutch immigrants Henry and Jenny, Hemkes used to watch his father play the tuba with community bands. "I was born in 1919," begins Hemkes, settling into a well-worn story. "In the 1900s, those were pretty good times. But there was no TV, no radio. Only rich people had automobiles. Communities were very tight." For entertainment, people congregated in community parks to hear community bands. His dad played the tuba, but at 7, Hemkes was entranced with the trumpeters. He sat by them at every rehearsal. Soon, one trumpet player caught on. "One of the trumpet players gave me an old trumpet he found in an attic," Hemkes says. "It was corroded so badly, we had to wrap adhesive tape around the lead pipe to keep (air) from leaking." His dad gave him a song book and a finger chart. He told Hemkes, "There you are. Go to it." In that day, most musicians, except for the wealthy ones, were self-taught. So Hemkes fingered his way through one song after another, mostly playing by ear. From that point on, young Hemkes assembled a new identity for himself. He sang and played trumpet at his family's church. At Fratt Elementary, he performed in front of his class and at schoolwide assemblies. His fifth-grade teacher - "Miss Olson. I'll never forget her" - thanked him once for always singing the class song of the week enthusiastically. "I said, 'Well, I play the trumpet, too,'" Hemkes says, laughing. "She said, 'Bring your trumpet in sometime.' So of course, the next day was sometime to a little kid." He continued in-school performances at McKinley Middle School. There, Mrs. Boetcher guided his talent. "She wrote a trumpet solo for me, 'Pale Moon,'" Hemkes says. "I took first chair in two weeks over the other trumpeters." He played his trumpet in one assembly after another. "Right away, everyone knew Johnny," Hemkes says. "It was a great morale booster for me. It just meant everything to me. My dad was so happy and proud of me. For my ninth-grade graduation, he gave me a brand new trumpet. Where he got the money, I have no idea." Hemkes started teaching other musicians during high school. He studied under the great Frederick Schulte, Racine's "Mr. Music," then head of the music department at Park High School. Schulte gave Hemkes his first few teaching jobs, teaching other students during the summer months for 25 cents an hour. "By the time I was in 12th grade, I was teaching 20 students," Hemkes says. "Fred Schulte made a big difference in my life. If it wasn't for those three teachers (Olson, Boetcher and Schulte), I don't know what would have happened to me." Hemkes graduated from Park in 1938. He played professionally for a while, but he didn't want to be a traveling musician. "I'm not the guy to live out of a suitcase," he explains. "I'm a homebody." He gave up music altogether during World War II to drive a semi truck as part of the war effort. When the war ended, he took a job driving with a local trucking company. "I enjoyed it very much," he says. "It was kind of a break from everything. I didn't know where I was going." Then he made that fateful delivery under the balcony of a former accompanist. "I heard, 'Johnny Hemkes, what on earth is wrong with you?!'" he recalls. She wanted Hemkes to teach her daughter, who was struggling with the trumpet at McKinley. "I said, 'No. That's not for me.' She said, 'Well, thank you, Johnny. I never turned you down when you asked for an accompanist.' And she went inside and shut her door. I felt so bad. I called her later that night. She said, 'Now will you teach my daughter?' I said no. She hung up on me. After a few hours, I called her back. I said, 'OK. Just this once.'" Of course, "just this once" turned into a weekly work load of 80 to 100 students. Local music teachers heard Hemkes was back on the job and immediately filled his schedule and a waiting list. "I never had my name in the phone book. I never had any advertising," Hemkes says. "But I always had more students than I should have been handling and a waiting list I couldn't take care of." Many of his former students are now music teachers in Racine, Kenosha and throughout Wisconsin. He rattles off some names: "Tim Burke, a fantastic trumpet player in Chicago. Doug Johnson, director of music at Park High School. Bob Hyatt at Case High School. John Dorsey at Horlick High School. Dave Kopecky at Starbuck. Dave Kapralian at Jerstad. Alex Habel, the Bradford High School band director. The Belle City Brassworks. Two-thirds of them are former students of mine." Hemkes only accepted students who came highly recommended by their music teachers "not for ability, but for personality and desire to do a good job," he says. He still teaches about 50 students. He wishes he could teach more. He will remind any students who aren't practicing enough that he has a mile-long waiting list, says student Mike Clobes, 15, a trombone player. "It's almost like he's saying, 'Be careful. You're slipping,'" Clobes says. "It's an inspiration to practice a little more." Former student and professional trumpeter Tim Burke says "Johnny is a master of teaching - teaching anything, but particularly music. He's one of those people who lives for teaching. He's 80 years old, but his students absolutely keep him young at heart." In April, Hemkes will be named to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside's Southeastern Wisconsin Educators Hall of Fame. He is writing a book called "The Singing Brass," which details his philosophy on teaching brass musicians. Former students and local music teachers convinced him to write it, he says. They want him to leave something behind. But Hemkes has no plans to stop teaching any time soon. "I've got my goal set for 125," he says. "I want to live a little longer so I can enjoy all the things that are coming." March 2000 teaching in JT