This article originally appeared in the Suburban Journal.
Harry Wolf is sitting in the basement of his Waterloo home. A tuba rests in his lap.
The instrument has been his passport around the world.
Sixty-five years ago, a 15-year-old Wolf wanted to play traditional German music.
It made sense – three of his grandparents came from Germany.
Wolf, whose parents spoke German at home, called his group the Waterloo German Band.
Singing in German, playing waltzes and fast polka, the band would play at parades, picnics, homecomings and the “fest circuit” – Strassenfest, Octoberfest, Maifest, even bagelfests.
“Everyone got a free bagel,” Wolf said.
The band was in demand. They performed show after show across the country.
“We wore out five motor homes,” Wolf said.
Cultural ambassadors from Southern Illinois, the band found ardent fans in unusual places.
In honor of his music, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace made Wolf a lieutenant colonel in the state militia.
(Not to be outdone, the state of Kentucky made him a full colonel.)
They played Germany five times, surprising the crowd with their mastery of old-time German “beer-drinking music.”
“They couldn’t believe a six-piece band from Waterloo knew songs they had forgotten,” Wolf said.
In the twilight of a six-decade career, Wolf is no stranger to awards and acclamation.
He was inducted into the Illinois Senior Hall of Fame. Waterloo honored him with “Harry Wolf Day.” Last year, he garnered the Studs Terkel Humanitarian Award from the Illinois Humanities Council.
But even Wolf, who has become something of an award magnet in recent years, was taken aback by his most recent honor.
The German government has awarded Wolf the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit). The award is the highest honor an American can receive from the German government.
Wolf will receive the honor at a ceremony at the German Consulate General in Chicago on June 7. He was stunned by the news.
“It hit me hard,” he said. “All these years, I put my heart into it.”
Wolf is something of an archivist. His subject is his own life.
He has 4,000 audio tapes in the basement. The tapes are past band concerts, each one precisely labeled.
In the adjoining room he keeps rows and rows of binders. Inside the binders are papers and photos detailing his long career, his many trips, all in chronological order.
Wolf has a motto. Yagottawanna. It’s posted on the wall.
He takes it very seriously.
“To succeed, yagottawanna,” he said.
It’s a lesson to the half-dozen or so German language students he teaches for free in his basement every week. It’s also a lesson for Wolf.
“I enjoy work,” he said. “It was hard to get a lot of jobs.”
Wolf taught his twin passions, German and geography, in the Belleville School District. In retirement, the German lessons allow him to flex his teaching muscles.
His friend, Barbara Johnson, is a relative newcomer to the band.
She joined 20 years ago.
“Barbara plays accordion,” Wolf said. “She’s very talented.”
“I didn’t know any German songs until I joined the band,” Johnson said. “But I love it. It’s fast and upbeat.”
Wolf owned 15 tubas at one time, including a 100-year-old Czech model.
“A woman at a concert asked me if I bought it new,” Wolf said, smiling.
He might be an octogenarian and the last remaining original member of the band, but he can still handle the large instrument with ease.
Wolf has the thick forearms of a longtime tuba man.
“It weighs 25 pounds for the first hour,” he said. “By the fourth hour it weighs 100 pounds.”
He picks up his tuba and blows, just like he has thousands of times before. How long will he play?
“How long will I live?” Wolf said. “I don’t think you live too long if you sit around and do nothing. I’ll go as long as I can.”
Contact reporter Chris Campbell at 618-344-0264, ext. 104.