By: Jim Dittmann
“Now presenting the American Legion Band of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin” – Cletus G. Willihnganz shares the legend of the American Legion Band.
Our story begins in November of 1918. The Armistice ended the First World War, what was to be called the Great War. Early the next spring, members of the American Expeditionary Force, still in Europe as part of the Armistice provisions, met in Paris for the first gathering of a new organization, one that would adopt “American Legion” as the organization’s official name. In Minneapolis, on the first anniversary of the Armistice, the Legion’s Founding Convention was held and the Legion was born. Clete Willihnganz, a lifetime Beaver Dam resident, his eyes beginning to swell with memories, very quietly comments; “This was started from the heart – there is so much these guys endured – no one should forget what they did.”
In 1921, the John E. Miller Post 146 received its charter. It was named for the first Beaver Dam resident killed in the Great War. The Beaver Dam American Legion Band was formed that same year and was directed by Prof. J.O. Franks of the Oshkosh Normal School. His services were made available through a provision of the Soldiers Bonus Law.
The band progressed rapidly and performed its first concert at the Davidson Theatre just a month later. The band kept a very busy schedule with concerts at Swan Park, church socials, basketball games and the Dodge County fair. The band attended the 1921 American Legion National Convention in Kansas City – plus other gatherings. This first year established a precedent that would define the band for the next 30 years.
Clete was born in Beaver Dam on August 3, 1925, and has lived here ever since. In 1934, when Clete was in the 5th grade at St. Peter’s school, Richard Harder one of the five legendary “Harder Boys” inspired him to play the trombone. With the country in the depths of the Great Depression, his parents somehow found a way to buy him a trombone (made in Milwaukee); the cost was $25. A star was born.
Clete was “drafted” into the Legion Band in 1941, when he was just 16 years old. He was working at the local J.C. Penney store and had to decide if he wanted to travel with the band or work at the store – for Clete, an energetic young man, passionate on the trombone, the choice was simple, what 16 year-old wouldn’t jump at the chance to travel with the Legion Band to Yellowstone National Park and points west including Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Denver and Omaha. Little did he know that this decision would be life changing.
While boarding the train in downtown Beaver Dam – Clete’s dad shouted out to band member Barney Belling, “Hey Barney, keep a good eye on my kid – he’s only 16, same as your daughter.” On route, Clete learned that the trip was not to be all fun and games as the band members all took turns with chores and KP. Young Clete was cleaning up the oven roaster pans with the custom being to toss the wash water overboard. Picture this – the train is rumbling through the mountains at a high rate of speed – the boxcar door slides open, and a 90 lb. Clete wrestles this huge, metal roasting pan up to throw the water into the abyss. Suddenly, the wind catches the pan and Clete is wrestling with a sail that attempts to take him with the water! (Huge roaster pan – 90 lb. kid – moving train.) “Next thing I remember is this big hand grabbing me by the collar. – He saved my life!” Clete snickers. When the train pulled back into Beaver Dam, Mr. Willihnganz is trackside. “Well Barney, how’d my kid behave?” “A perfect gentleman,” Barney reported.
The year 1941 also marked the Legion Band’s 20th anniversary, and Beaver Dam celebrated its centennial. Clete notes, “An invitation was extended for all current and former members to march in the centennial parade. A band of approximately 100 men turned out in white shirts, dark trousers and ties – with the drum major Charlie Yauman to lead the parade.”
In September of 1941, the band attended the American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox addressed the crowd: “The Legion was born immediately following the last war and is made up exclusively of men who served in that war. And we meet here in Milwaukee in the third year of another great war.” The United States would soon be fully engaged in the Second World War. The war years found the band being called for extra parades and concerts in support of bond drives and patriotic events, as well as losing members to the armed forces. In 1943, Clete was 18 years old and enlisted in the Navy. After the war, he returned to Beaver Dam and the American Legion Band.
The final tour of the “Official” Legion Band departed in August 1950 for the Black Hills of South Dakota with stops in Austin, MN; Mitchell, SD; Rapid City, SD; and the Minnesota State Fair. Clete and his wife Betty “chaperoned” the tour with 45 other musicians, family and friends; the ensemble traveled in two air-conditioned buses. The band featured Marcella Noerz – clarinet soloist and the only woman to play with the band. Ray Herr was the drum major – Cheryl Mack was the featured twirler. Fredrick Parfrey was the conductor and Clete was the president.
Fred Parfrey kept a detailed journal of the trip: Sunday August 20th – Worthington, MN. “It was cold as cold could be but in spite of this we had a crowd of about 4,000 people who stayed for the entire program.” – “I can truthfully say that the band we have on this trip is the finest I have ever conducted of my own.” The band toured the Black Hills of South Dakota. “We are beginning to believe that the beauties and wonders of the Black Hills never are exhausted.” From Rapid City, a day trip included Mount Rushmore. “Words cannot describe this spectacle” – “Although the mountain goats are numerous there, one is rarely seen. Apparently they too knew we were coming, for the herd sent a representative out to the top of the memorial to greet us.” Later that evening, back in Rapid City, the band performed for a crowd of 10,000 people. “We were forced to play one encore after another. One of the park officials said that this was the largest crowd they had ever had for a band concert. This, of course, made us very happy.”
One of the band’s favorite marches was titled “The Legion Band of Beaver Dam” written by D.C. Burkholder, the Legion Band’s and the Beaver Dam School district’s first full-time music director. Clete also sings, and along with Jack Witney, Keith Pettack and Ray Herr, the quartet performed “When day is done.”
The Beaver Dam American Legion Band played Tuesday night concerts in Swan Park for 30 years and traveled extensively representing American Legion Post 146 and the city of Beaver Dam to thousands of people in both parades and concerts throughout the United States, five provinces of Canada and Mexico. This single article cannot begin to describe the impact this group has had on our community – perhaps in future articles we will explore more of the band’s many accomplishments.
Clete and his wife Betty live in Beaver Dam and are active in the community. At the Beaver Dam Area Orchestra’s spring concert, while the orchestra performed a wonderful Miss Saigon (Medley), I happened to glance toward Clete – his toes were a tappin’ and his fingers a snappin’ – it’s the music…