116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Every person’s life is filled to bursting with stories.
The History Center’s Oral Histories LIVE! program captures the varied stories of folks with a connection to Linn County. Each event is filmed in front of a live audience. Recordings are collected on The History Center’s website (historycenter.org/oral-histories-live). The elder of the two writers of this column is the host of the programs.
Luman Colton was our guest in February 2020. Colton, who died at the age of 100 in January of this year, was a legendary figure among Iowa music educators, and he traced the arc of his life in music during the program. We can’t do the full conversation justice here and so encourage you to watch the recording.
Colton knew the precise moment he fell in love with music as a young man in a small town in Illinois.
“There was a time when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra broadcast on the radio on Saturday nights,” he related. “At that time, I was a junior in high school. … I tuned in to the program, and the first program I heard was an all Wagner program … And there I sat in the room with this radio in 1937, and that, to me, was a musical conversion. I decided at that moment, ‘I want to be in music the rest of my life.’ ”
Colton studied music at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. His time at the college would be interrupted, however, by World War II. He remembered the moment he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“My junior year, I was listening to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra broadcast on the radio in my room, and they interrupted that broadcast with the famous quote from President Roosevelt: ‘This day shall live in infamy.’… I listened to that and I thought, ‘I wonder if that will affect me someday.’ And, of course, it did.”
His call-up in March of his senior year meant Colton missed his senior recital and his final exams. Nevertheless, the college conferred his degree, and an Army program allowed Colton to study music for three months at London’s Trinity College of Music at no cost after the war ended.
“I took trombone lessons from the first trombonist of the London Philharmonic once a week, and voice lessons from the gentleman who directed the Bach Choir in London,” he said.
In 1946, Colton started teaching music in Postville in northeast Iowa while completing his master’s degree in music at Northwestern University in the summers.
To Cedar Rapids
In 1950, he began teaching band in Denison in west-central Iowa. When Washington and Jefferson high schools were completed in Cedar Rapids, a job opened at Roosevelt Junior High, and he taught there from 1957 to 1965.
In 1965, he moved to Jefferson High School, developing that school’s band program into a force to be reckoned with.
During his time at Jefferson, he had the opportunity to speak with another legend of the Iowa music scene.
“When I was president of the Iowa Bandmasters — that was an elective office — one Sunday afternoon I was out in my driveway washing my car. My wife called me to the phone and … the man on the other end said, ‘Hi, this is Meredith Willson.’ And I just about said, ‘Yeah, and this is Charlie McCarthy!’ But for once in my life, I was smart. It was Meredith Willson.”
Willson, most famous for writing “The Music Man” (and the “Iowa Fight Song”), had just returned from a trip abroad and had discovered an invitation to be a guest at the Iowa Bandmasters convention while shuffling through his accumulated mail.
“He was just a friendly Midwestern guy,” Colton said. “He never did come to the convention.”
Because Colton needed more time to care for his ailing wife, he taught at Wilson Junior High from 1979 until his retirement in 1986. At the time of his retirement, he felt prepared to let teaching go.
“I was 64 and a half, and I thought, ‘I’m ready.’ ”
But he wasn’t ready to give up music education entirely. He coordinated the All-City Instrumental Music Contest from the late 1980s through the 1990s. His efforts impacted the musical lives of thousands of area students. The contest has since been renamed in his honor.
Do you know someone in the community who should be part of Oral Histories LIVE!? You can email us with your suggestions.
Jessica Cline is a Leadership & Character Scholar at Wake Forest University. Her dad, Rob Cline, is not a scholar of any kind. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com