By Scott Thoma
Lester Schuft, 84, of Hutchinson, has been the leader of a popular polka band for 63 years. Over that time, he has traveled many miles and met a lot of people.
“If I could turn back the clock, I’d do it all over again,” he said.
Schuft recently got a phone call with news he wasn’t expecting. The personable, retired dentist was informed by the caller that he was being inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame on April 22 at Turner Hall in New Ulm.
Besides Schuft, others to be inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame this year include Molly Busta-Lange (Molly B) of Ridgeville Corners, Ohio; Paul Diethelm of St. Cloud; Church of Cash of Golden Valley; Minnesota Brass of St. Paul; and Moore by Four of Minneapolis.
There will be a “meet-and-greet” for the six inductees on April 23 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Music Hall of Fame on North Broadway in New Ulm.
His name will forever be linked to others already in the Hall of Fame such as Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, John Denver, and Prince.
“I’ve never felt like I am above anyone else,” he said, humbly. “But it’s really an honor and I am very grateful. This is the final topping for all my efforts in the music industry.”
Music runs through many of the Schuft family’s veins. Lester’s father, Albert, was a drummer who played for many different bands. Mimicking his father, Lester started out playing drums when he was only seven years old living on a farm outside Brownton. By the time Schuft was 10, the trumpet piqued his interest.
“My dad bought a trumpet for me at Brown and Meidl Music Store in New Ulm for $180 in 1948,” Schuft recalled. “That same trumpet would cost around $2,000 today.”
Schuft took lessons from Ray Meidl twice a week from sixth through eighth grades and has been playing the trumpet ever since, including the high school band, as well as the symphony and pep bands at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
His music prowess became increasingly popular, and he used his talent as a vehicle to pay his way through dental school at the University of Minnesota.
Schuft played in his band while he was a full-time dentist. He would work on teeth by day and blow his trumpet at night.
Schuft started up his own seven-member band when he was 21 years old, calling it Lester Schuft and the Country Dutchmen. The band is playing today, although the members have changed over the years.
“Thirty-one members of the band have passed away,” Schuft said, his head lowering as if paying tribute to each one. “They were all great musicians and great friends. I think everything revolves around faith, family and friends.”
Lester Schuft and the Country Dutchmen have played for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and many other social events over the years. They have played in nine states in all. And they were even the official band for the former Minnesota North Stars hockey team.
“We would sit in the grandstand and play before, during, and after the game,” Schuft noted. “We also played for the Aquatennial Queen Coronation dances.”
The Country Dutchmen even performed for Hubert Humphrey when he ran for President of the United States in 1968, and were regulars on the former John Deere Bandwagon show on KEYC-TV in Mankato for 40 years.
The polka music the Lester Schuft and the Country Dutchmen play is a German/Czech mix. The name “Dutchmen” is derived from “Deutsch,” which means German.
The band recorded a new CD called “Classic Cars and Classic Songs” this past October that is soon to be released. The recording was done at Peace Lutheran Church in Hutchinson, where Schuft is a member.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many 33 1/3 records, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs we’ve put out over the years,” Schuft said with a smile. “We’ve recorded around 700 or 800 songs, though.”
There are 12 members in the current Lester Schuft and the Country Dutchmen band, including Lester’s granddaughter, Eavan McCormick, who plays clarinet.
Schuft has been involved in a myriad of other venues in his lifetime, including owning his own Red Rose Records recording studio in Hutchinson, giving trumpet lessons to students, having a radio show, and more.
“I want to do everything I can to bring music to the young people,” he said. “I think that is important. Music can be expensive these days. If I can help a kid find an inexpensive instrument, or repair one that needs fixing, I will do that for them.”
Schuft retired as a dentist in 1996 following a 30-year career.
“I wasn’t even retired a week and I was going nuts,” he said.
He was then asked to join the radio station (KDUZ/KARP in Hutchinson), where he is still working as an ad salesman. He had his own radio show there for 54 years.
During his playing days, Schuft has also faced several adversities and tragedies. His wife, Shirley, whom he was married to for 42 years and played a few songs for her on his trumpet at their wedding, passed away in 2009 after a four-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
“She was a wonderful woman,” Lester said. “She was also a very good musician. She played the clarinet, accordion, and concertina.”
One of Lester’s two children, Curtis, passed away from a heart attack four years ago at age 48. His daughter, Sherry McCormick, lives in Waconia.
Music has always been there to ease Schuft’s pain. “Music is therapy,” he said.
Schuft also had four heart operations over the last 15 years, but he has been able to continue on with a music career that is so near and dear to his heart.
“I can’t play the trumpet for a long time because of my operations,” he said. “And if I need a break, someone will cover for me. We all cover for each other if we have to.”
When reflecting on his life, Schuft feels this recent Hall of Fame induction might have been God’s plan.
“Maybe God kept me alive so I could be around for the Hall of Fame induction,” he said.
For 30 years, Schuft filled a lot of cavities as a dentist. And for 63 years, he has filled a lot of hearts with his music.