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By the Way: Love of classical music, Sousa run in his family

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Stafford Wavrek’s kitchen wall is plastered with concert schedules and he’s got the tickets to match.

He rarely misses a concert in either Bucks County or the Lehigh Valley. Now retired, this genial man, who has been a mainstay of the Delaware Valley Music Club for two decades, said simply, “I have made it my mission to support classical music.”

He comes from a family that has been enthralled with music for generations, a family flush with child prodigies. While his love for classical music abounds, he admits only once has he veered from his classical obsession.

His own music-making is a bit surprising. His instrument of choice? The boomba — the boisterous “Devil’s Stick” beloved of the Pennsylvania Dutch. (More about that later.)

Stafford is the youngest son of Berthold “Bert” Wavrek, piccolo soloist for the John Philip Sousa Band for nine years. Bert’s three brothers, Stafford’s uncles, were also musical prodigies who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Allentown Symphony. In addition, the Wavreks were one of five founding families of the precursor of the Allentown Symphony.

Stafford said his father had played his first flute and piccolo solos with an orchestra when he was just 7 years old and joined the Sousa band when he was 16, the youngest member ever. Bert also played for 50 years with the nearly 200-year-old Allentown Band.

I first met Stafford at a Delaware Valley Music Club concert (where else?) to which a friend had invited me. A smiling, welcoming, fun-filled personality, he was greeting concert-goers and showing off cufflinks made of international coins.

Now, we sat in a room in his home in Emmaus filled with musical memorabilia. His storytelling-self spun his tale of growing up with a father who always played the piccolo solo in Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

I had hoped for some insider stories about Sousa, but Stafford said his father never told him about life with the band.

“He was either performing or teaching flute lessons in the living room 11 out of 14 days. He was a very busy man,” he explained. “The band was ‘the world’s No. 1 musical attraction’ for more than three decades,” Stafford said.

While Bert Wavrek didn’t talk much about his boss, Stafford said he did name his sons after the bandmaster.

The oldest of five brothers, all of whom excelled at sports, Wayne was the only one to escape Bert’s admiration for Sousa. The other boys are, in birth order, John, Philip, and twins Sousa and Stafford.

Stafford joked, “In the womb, I overheard my father say he was going to name his next son Sousa and I kicked my brother out first. Can you imagine the reaction in the schoolyard? My name is a combination of the musical staff and Ford Motor Co.

“My father,” he explained, “was born in 1906, still the horse-and-buggy age. He admired Henry Ford and his company and only owned Fords throughout his life.”

“Do you play an instrument?” I asked. His enthusiastic response? “Not now but I did play the boomba.”

Sometimes called a Devil’s Stick, it’s a long pole fitted with sleigh bells, cymbals, a tambourine, a cow bell, a hollow wood block and perhaps a horn. The player bounces it on the floor and hits the individual noisemakers with a drumstick. Needless to say, it can be heard far and wide. No formal musical training is necessary.

A buddy introduced Stafford to the boomba and he played in taverns and with the Happy Boombadears. “Actually, I was quite adept at it,” he said with a grin. “I won the title The Buddy Holly of Boom-ba Players the last two years at the Bavarian Summer Festival in Barnesville.” The Schuylkill County event closed down in 1984 and Stafford later gave away his boomba.

He was welcomed into the Delaware Valley Music Club 20 years ago after a conversation with Elizabeth Pitcairn, classical violinist, whom he met at a concert. Elizabeth owns and plays the famous 1720 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius violin.

Her mother, Mary Eleanor Pitcairn, who founded the Lenape Chamber Ensemble, lives in Tinicum, where she hosts music club concerts at her High View Farm studio. Elizabeth said she thought Stafford would enjoy the club.

Along the way, Stafford has discovered opera. “I love my opera,” he said.

He also loves Bucks County and spends a lot of time here. “The people I know here are more outgoing and they are so gracious to me,” he said.

Kathryn Finegan Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Durham Township. She can be reached at kathyclark817@gmail.com.


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