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Bob Lind, Published December 19 2010

Lind: Man shares the joy of music

Gene Okerlund once oversaw the artistic talents of hundreds of people. Now he’s responsible for just one: himself.

Gene, 72, the retired arts administrator for Fargo Public Schools, is a one-man band, performing primarily at area senior citizen centers.

This week, he’ll entertain Monday at Villa Maria and Tuesday at Good Samaritan, both in Fargo.

Of course, he’ll focus on Christmas, performing such golden oldies as “Silver Bells,” “Joy to the World” and – what would Christmas be without it? – “Silent Night.”

And he’ll do them via a variety of instruments (one at a time, thank you): a trumpet or a trombone, a flugelhorn, guitar, harmonica, recorder.

“I’m primarily a brass player,” Gene says, “but as a conductor, you have to play everything.”

He’s been a director and music instructor in Barron, Wis.; New York Mills, Minn.; and Fargo South High School, where he served from 1969 until 1977, when he became the Fargo Public Schools’ arts chief.

He retired in 2008 and started his one-man band, making his own background soundtracks and working up a repertoire of 150 songs. Or more.

The child inside

Gene took his first music lessons when he was in sixth grade in Wall Lake, Iowa, the home, incidentally, of singer Andy Williams.

Music was life for Gene, who studied it at several colleges, including Concordia.

Today, he’s bringing it to senior citizens, thanks in part to his mother, Alpha, who told him that “music is the best therapy” for people in that age bracket.

Gene’s father died seven years ago, but his mom, 92, lives in Clear Lake, Iowa, and is still going strong – and then some; at age 90, she snorkeled in the Caribbean.

Alpha also told her son that “everyone has a child inside.”

“That’s what I’m doing now,” Gene says, “bringing out that child” in the form of “a smile, joy, establishing relationships with seniors.”

But he loved working with young people, also. He has stories galore about those days, including the time Fargo musician/composer Frank Scott “saved me.”

Gene was directing the South High band in the 1980s when it won the opportunity to enter a competition in Lexington, Ky.

The problem was that the competing bands were big marching outfits, while his was small in comparison, with about 70 kids.

But Frank had an idea. He made arrangements of some dance songs. So in Lexington, after the other bands marched, the South band just did its dance tunes, got a standing “O” from the crowd and won a special award.

Bonus: The South band then went to Churchill Downs and saw the famous racehorse Secretariat win one his races.

Some finish for both the band and the horse.

Young at heart

When he entertains, Gene gives the background of the songs. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” he explains, for example, came out in 1943, and it referred to a GI fighting overseas who said he would be home, but as the song concludes, “only in my dreams.”

Gene has a “young at heart” theme for all his programs. “I try to find something to put a smile on their faces,” he says. “Humor, and certainly music.”

After the holidays, Gene will switch his program to spiritual/gospel music. After that he’ll have a program focusing on the music of the popular stars of the past: Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Perry Como.

Always, it’s fun to see the child come out in the seniors he’s entertaining. Recently a woman scared nursing home attendants silly when, as he was doing “Blue Suede Shoes,” she pulled herself out of her wheelchair and did some dance steps. Aides rushed to help her, but she didn’t need them; she happily danced just fine.

Price is right

Gene’s musical genes have been passed on. Both of his children, Kristin of Vienna, Austria, and Kari of Eagan, Minn., are musical. Both daughters have two children, and they are musical, too, although somehow hockey sneaked in as a prime interest of Kari’s kids.

Gene’s wife, Rennitta, a music graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, is a pianist and singer.

Gene is a member of the Master Chorale, the First Lutheran Church choir and brass quintet and the Fargo Theatre All-Star Band.

His one-man band is booked for many performances at senior citizen homes during the coming weeks.

What does he charge? Not a dime. “If they insist on paying me,” he says, “I tell them to give something to Hospice, a great service.”

So why does he pour all this time and talent into these programs for no pay?

“I love this community,” he says. “It has so many opportunities for people to use their talents. It’s my way of giving back for what it’s given me.

“This is the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my whole life, bringing joy to seniors as they remember the old songs.”

And oh, the fun of doing a lick on one of his instruments, perhaps Dixie-style (“I love Dixie!” he says). It’s enough to make a woman get out of her wheelchair and start dancing.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com