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Wakes, funerals can be happy time of remembrance

August 31, 2008
By SANDY MICKELSON, Messenger staff writer

Mary Davis, one of my best friends from school, came home to Fort Dodge a few weeks back, and no matter how sad the situation - her mother had died - our friendship took a shot in the arm from the short time we had to talk at the wake.

When you gather to pay your respects, you almost feel sacrilegious smiling and being happy. But Mary's mother, Marcie Blanchet, had to know how close the two of us were - even if we'd had just one year of high school together before she left Eagle Grove. It was as if we used the same skewed mentality in dealing with life, and we liked it that way.

Still, I maintain wakes and funerals are good times. I certainly want mine to be happy, though I would like to wait a good many years for it.

On Tuesday, the funeral of Ralph Leslie Drollinger was, I have heard, that wonderful kind of happy that comes when honoring someone you love.

Drollinger, 86, was the quintessential musician, filled with the excitement of music of all kinds and able to spread his love of making music to everyone he touched. He taught music in Goldfield, Sheffield, Eagle Grove, Manson and Fort Dodge. He had his own band, The Ralph Leslie Band, and he played with the Karl King Municipal Band. He also played with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby's Bobcats, among others.

His first wife, Marion, who died in 1975, taught music in the Fort Dodge schools.

He and Lila Campbell Walker were married on July 29, 1977, on a riverboat going down the Mississippi River during the Bix Beiderbeck Festival in Davenport. That was a big jazz festival, and a Dixieland band played for the wedding.

I wish I had been there - that sounds like so much fun.

Lila, of course, became Drollinger's constant companion and his biggest fan. That's the power of love.

Although Drollinger played all instruments, his main work was on piano, bass, tuba and trombone.

His daughter, Leslie Drollinger Stratmoen, of Riverton, Wyo., told about the time Karl King wanted to buy a sousaphone for the band and let Drollinger pick it out.

"That's pretty cool," she said.

She's right. That was pretty cool, and it showed the faith King had in Drollinger's ability.

"It didn't matter where we were living," Leslie said, "we were always in Fort Dodge on Sunday so Dad could practice with the Karl King Band, and then we'd go to the concert at the bandshell. Dad, basically, played for all musical groups in Fort Dodge, including the Fort Dodge Choral Society, Symphony, Civic Glee Club, various theatrical groups and the Fort Dodge Big Band and Dixie Kings."

That's a lot of music, a lot of happy times.

Leslie said she stayed in Fort Dodge longer than her two sisters, Judith and Kimberly, and she often sang when her father played.

"Years ago, Dad told me when he kicked the bucket, he did not want his funeral to be a sad affair," she said. "He wanted to hear laughter, people telling stories and the Dixie band playing in the background. I wanted to honor that request."

To start, she called family friend Dan Cassady, who pulled in Denny Anderson and others who had either played with Drollinger or had been his students.

"The amazing players they are, they got together the morning of the funeral and ran through a bit of a rehearsal and played," Leslie said. "And it was very beautiful."

The three girls each gave a eulogy for their father at the funeral, then together they sang one of his favorite songs, "Sentimental Journey."

"Whenever my sisters and I would get together, maybe once every five years, he always wanted us to sing that song," Leslie said. "We knew it would be difficult, but we just knew that we had to be able to do that for Dad."

It's been 17 years since my own dad died, and one of the songs we sang was "Amazing Grace." I choked up at "was blind, but now I see" because he was almost blind.

Now I've got "Sentimental Journey" running through the emotional pool behind my eyes, too. "Gonna take a sentimental journey to renew old memories."

That is exactly why wakes are held, and it doesn't hurt at all if you can laugh and be happy.

So long friends, until the next time when we're together.

Contact Sandy Mickelson at (515) 573-2141 or



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