There was a unique reunion Wednesday afternoon at the West Bend High Schools as Joanne Shirkey, a 1955 graduate, was reintroduced to her marimba from 61 years ago.
“I was a sophomore and in percussion,” said Shirkey about her band experience. “I specifically played timpani, but I also played bells and piano.”
According to Shirkey it was 1951 or 1952 when the West Bend High School purchased a marimba for $1,000.
Recently during a concert at the high schools, Shirkey recognized more than her grandson on stage. “I said, ‘That’s my marimba!’”
Band director Leah Duckert organized the reunion.
“My student’s father sent me an email asking if it would be OK if she comes to say hi and play her old friend again,” said Duckert. “My big thing is I love band family. I work really hard to say once you’re band family you’re always band family so to have band family from 60 years ago come back to us that’s phenomenal.”
Duckert wheeled the marimba into the band room and drew back the protective cover.
“You can hear the sound is good, except on the end the low C is cracked,” she said. “Some of the other bars are in rough shape and that’s just basic wear and tear.”
Shirkey arrived and quickly hugged her way through salutations. “There’s my baby,” she said walking towards the instrument she easily identified. (To see video click here)
“There’s nothing else like this; they don’t make them like this anymore,” Shirkey said.
She tapped her fingers on the key, complimented the sturdy legs and traced her hand down the heavy wood bars.
Shirkey brought her own mallets and dove into her signature song, Stars and Stripes Forever.
“I pretty much have it memorized,” Shirkey said. “But I like having the music in front of me.”
Shirkey danced her way through the piece, the mallets knocking out a patriotic melody.
“I’m so glad you came home again,” praised Duckert after the song.
Shirkey, a former medical technologist, reminisced about her music memories.
“It was 1951 and there was a man from West Bend who played the marimba and he knew the band director,” she says. “They got together and donated some money and got it at a good cost and fortunately they let me play it.”
Shirkey remembers her high school band teacher as “a big Jewish man” who was “a real stinker.”
“One time I was playing and he stopped in the middle of our practice and told me, ‘You sound like a bag of potatoes,’” she said. “I guess I sounded lumpy, but he pushed me and that’s a good thing.”
As far as practice was concerned, Shirkey said she didn’t do much at home. “But instead of taking study hall I always went up to the band room and practiced,” she said.
Growing up on the corner of Tenth Avenue and Chestnut Street, Shirkey’s father worked at the West Bend Company and her mom owned Lorraine’s Beauty Shop on Elm Street, just west of the Post Office.
“She had a six-chair beauty shop,” said Shirkey. “She actually started in the Ziegler building but then rented from Dr. Franko and her shop was downstairs from his office.”
In 1955 another opportunity came calling. “When I was a senior in high school there was a man who came to our door to talk to me and my mother about having me tour the country with an all-girl marimba band,” said Shirkey.
“There was no way I was going to do that plus I was a homebody – but I often wonder what would have happened if I would have done that. I did go into medicine but I’ve always stayed with music.”
After high school Shirkey got a full scholarship to Mount Mary. “My mom had to pay my room and board and it was $400 a semester,” she said.
Muscle memory took over during Shirkey’s performance. “It’s like a typewriter, my hand knows where to go,” she said.
Shirkey’s grandson Parker, 15, a freshman at West Bend East High School joined his grandmother for a simple rendition of Mary had a Little Lamb.
“When she told me it was her marimba, I was kinda confused and didn’t know what she was talking about,” he said. “But this is so cool and I can see she’s so happy to do this. She’s always going to remember this.”