By Ken Trainor
When the Concordia University Community Concert Band assembles for its annual holiday concert this Friday, Dick Snyder will be in the brass section, where he's been for 20 years, which is a drop in the spit bucket compared to his long love affair with music.
Snyder, 84, has been playing the horn for 73 years.
He got started at the age of 11, when he joined the junior drum and bugle corps at the Gen. George Bell Jr. VFW Post, near Washington and Wells in Chicago.
"We lived on Hirsch Street near Pulaski," he recalls. "I would take the streetcar down Grand Avenue." This was the early 1930s, height of the Depression.
His sister, three years older, played in the corps, so he followed her lead. "I said, 'What do you want me to play? Drum? Bugle?' I didn't know anything. They said, 'Why don't you play a bugle like your sister. That way she can help you.' But I learned mainly on my own. I'm self-taught."
He played for the Bell Corps until he was 19, then started teaching the Chicago Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, which is where he met his future wife. Louise was the corps' secretary.
"My brother was in a Boy Scout troop," Louise recalls, "but they weren't terribly interested in tying knots, so they decided they would start a drum corps. My brother and I were very close, so I offered to help one day, and the next thing I knew I was the secretary."
The Cavaliers today is a large Drum Corps International group, the last surviving Chicago-area drum and bugle corps, headquartered in Rosemont.
In 1951, Dick was drafted and found himself in the "Army's navy," stationed at Ft. Eustis, Va., learning to operate mechanized landing craft (LCMs), the kind used during beach invasions in World War II (D-Day most famously).
"They'd hit the beach and drop the front," Dick explains. "But in the Korean War, they never pulled them out, so we would have to go in with the infantry. I said, 'Oh boy, I don't know if I would live through that' because we didn't get any infantry training. None at all."
They were getting ready to ship out when his grandmother died, and his parents arranged for him to attend the funeral.
"When I got back to camp, the barracks was completely empty. The captain said I would go with the next shipment. As I was walking out of his office, I saw a notice on the bulletin board. The general wanted to start a drum and bugle corps."
Timing is everything. His grandmother died and likely saved his life.
"For the next 18 months, I played in the drum and bugle corps at Ft. Eustis," he said.
When he was discharged, Dick joined the Skokie Indians Senior Drum and Bugle Corps and played and marched with them for the next seven years, winning three national championships in the process. Meanwhile, he and Louise were getting more serious. They had a kind of kid brother/older sister relationship at first. She was still with the Cavaliers, but they shared a train ride to Washington D.C. for a drum corps competition and the relationship took a turn. They married in 1955, moved to Oak Park in 1960 and had five children, three of whom joined the Norwood Park Imperial Cadets, the junior drum and bugle corps he was teaching.
Suddenly there was a lot of bugling in the house on the 500 block of Scoville. They practiced in the basement.
"I was already used to Dick practicing every day," Louise recalls, "so it didn't bother me."
The kids moved on to senior corps, but Dick continued teaching the juniors.
"I could handle the beginners," he recalls. "I didn't have the musical training for the seniors."
But drum corps instructors who could handle beginners were in great demand.
"Drum and bugle corps were all over," he noted. "Just about every neighborhood had one."
He started with the Nisei Ambassadors, a group of Japanese kids from Uptown. Then he taught the Jackson Raiders, a collection of African-American youth from the Altgeld Gardens housing project on the South Side, followed by the Hornets, another black corps, which practiced at the armory on Madison Street near Western.
"They were great kids," Dick remembers. "The Hornets were a little rougher."
He also taught a Chinese corps (Wah Mei), one from Berwyn (the Blue Knights), and several more. One of his sons went on to play in the Northern Illinois University marching band and taught a drum and bugle corps in Minnesota.
Why did Dick stay in it so long?
"The comradeship," he says. "I'm still friends with some of the guys from the Skokie Indians. Many, many years. I liked the marching, the discipline and the precision. There was the cadence. You couldn't goof off when you were playing, but we had a lot of fun otherwise."
They traveled some for competitions — to Los Angeles, D.C. In Miami, he recalls, they had to take shelter in the railroad terminal when a hurricane swept through.
It was another era. There aren't many drum corps anymore and the few that do exist are big.
"Drum corps are too expensive nowadays," Dick says. "You have to put up thousands of dollars a year. And all the schools have marching bands now. OPRF has a good one. Drum and bugle corps used to be neighborhood stuff. Now it's not. I never had to recruit kids. They were just interested. It was the camaraderie."
They were sponsored by American Legion and VFW posts. They raised funds for equipment and uniforms and traveling to competitions. They practiced in nearby parks.
By 1990, he was ready to give up the marching life and try a more stationary gig. He joined the Triton College Concert Band, then played for the Mills Orchestra at the Oak Park Arms. In 1992, he retired from his day job, with GTE in Northlake, after 34 years. Sixteen years ago, Dick and Louise moved from the family home to a condo on North Kenilworth Avenue.
For the last two decades, he's played for the Concordia Concert Band, led by Richard Fischer, which has doubled in size during that time. The musicians range from seniors in high school to senior citizens like himself.
"I still practice every day," he says. "I have to."
"He's got to keep his chops up," says Louise.
"The lip is giving out," Dick adds. "I play the low notes. I don't play the high notes anymore."
There are precedents for playing the trumpet late into life. The Snyders live on the same block as the late Adolph "Bud" Herseth, the legendary CSO first trumpet.
"Dick is a wonderful person," says Richard Fischer, Concordia Concert Band conductor. "He exemplifies that music is for life."
The concert this Friday will feature mostly Christmas music, but they will also remember Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, by playing, "At Dawn They Slept."
"Wow, that's a number," says Dick. "It starts off real soft and mellow and then builds." The holiday concert concludes, as it always does, with Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," which ends famously with a trumpet impersonating a horse.
"We have a guy who does the whinnying," Dick says. "We don't neigh."
The Concordia Community Concert Band's free holiday concert is Friday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. in the Chapel of Our Lord on Concordia University's campus.