“I know some people that are waiting to send money, check books open, when they see this article, because then they know it will truly happen.”
Those are the words of Allan Motter, who along with his wife, Gretchen, who are trying to make a difference in their own way, and help move forward the Lancaster Library/Community Center expansion project. The Motters have donated a $50,000 challenge grant to name the Performance Plaza stage in Ryland park, but they are not looking to get any recognition for themselves, instead they want to honor Duane Wilcox, longtime community teacher who was an institution in the community as much as the projects he worked on.
“In all my years in school and college Duane Wilcox was the best teacher,” Allan said of Wilcox.
Motter told of a memory shared was of a student that spoke of how scared and lonely he felt in school until he walked into Wilcox’s band room. The acceptance, expectations, and support garnered in that classroom made him the person he is today. During this time his mother purchased his first instrument. A “king”cornet” for $35. It was used. It is with him to this day. That was in 1953.
Former vocal music teacher Lucy ‘Dahm’ Ramshaw recalled how Wilcox would have the public participate in annual LHS Cabarets, a program he helped to create. “He would organize a dance band from amongst his band students and they would learn some of the ‘pop’ tunes for the public to dance to,” Ramshaw said. “He at one time organized a bottle band too. One year they had brought in vocalists from the public and even had an adult barbershop quartet of all women! Liz Davies, Lois Wulf, Kay Daughtery and myself.”
Wilcox, 87, was born in 1926 and raised in River Falls, where he left following his high school senior year at 17 to enlist in the Navy. Following WW II serving in the South Pacific he returned to River Falls State Teachers College (UW-River Falls) where he met his wife Joan Johnson during music classes. He graduated from the Teachers College in 1951 becoming the first Music Major graduate of River Falls State Teachers College now UW-River Falls.
After his first teaching gig in Glenwood City, Duane came to Lancaster in 1953 teaching grade school and junior high music. Joan started a pre-school in Lancaster at the Episcopal Church Annex behind the Pink Pony in 1958 through 1959. She then moved to Potosi where she taught Kindergarten in their first-ever Kindergarten class for two years, then the lab school at UW-Platteville before teaching kindergarten at Lancaster.
Their first home in Lancaster was right across the street from Schreiner Memorial Library Park to the west....the Performance Plaza will be facing that home.
Duane and Joan both sang in their respective church choirs throughout their days in Lancaster, Duane at St. Clements where he also directed the choir and Joan at the Congregational Church. He was an active part of the Lancaster civic theater troupe in his early years in Lancaster.
He graduated from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago in 1965 with a Masters degree in Music and was active in the WI Bandmasters Association, served as its President and is its oldest member at over 60+ years. During his Lancaster School District career he started in the grade school and junior high school then moved to the high school when the opportunity arose. During this time he developed award winning performance groups through band, choir and orchestra in Lancaster over his 32 years leading music before retiring in 1985 .
In the fall of 1954 Duane organized Musical Carnival as a fundraiser for the Music Department of LHS. In 1955 this Carnival became known as the “Cabaret,” the rest is history. Cabaret is arguably Duane’s most lasting legacy. This annual spring musical performance and fundraising event began in the old high school gym (now Lancaster Middle School) and featured many if not most of the students involved in LHS music.
Song Spinners started in 1967 when a double quartet of sophomore boys was blended with a sextet of senior girls forming the first group. By 1969 the Song Spinners had performance changes of clothes, props and multiple sets of musical presentations traveling the state performing as one of the first swing choirs in WI. Duane’s Class A choirs and bands routinely scored at the highest level at the music festival competitions in Southwest Wisconsin.
He loved teaming up with his dear friend and teaching cohort Ann Elston, together coaching their high school students through many successful performances and musicals over the years.
He taught the String Instrument Repair Workshop for over 20 years at UW-Madison. He began there as a student himself when he taught orchestra in Lancaster. After the founding teacher retired, Duane was asked to teach the class which he continued to do over 20 summers. In 1981 he started a cottage business, Strings and Things repairing string instruments and building furniture out of wood which is still active today.
Since retiring in 1985 they moved to Joan’s hometown area of Lake Delton to be close to elderly family and built their retirement home near the family lake home. They have lived a full and healthy life since leaving Lancaster engaged in their church choir, active member of his Kiwanis Club as well as serving as Assistant District Governor, continues active participation with the American Legion, and Baraboo Community Band involvement....yes, he is the oldest in the band at 87. They love to travel and have had the opportunity of many visits to overseas destinations.
Duane Wilcox was one of those teachers that made a difference in life after life after life, Allan noted, which is why they wanted to honor him and his wife. He grew the music department at Lancaster High School to include the now famous Cabaret. Song Spinners is a cornerstone of the music department to this day. There are many memories centered around the amazing teacher.
Duane’s wife Joan also had some memories to share. “Once a week when Earl Liddle [a former high school band director in the area and a salesmen for Ward Brodt Music] was in town, Dick Johnson, Monte Muller and Duane Wilcox would meet at the Pink Pony after school was out. This ‘Think Tank’ [the four of them] was always about how can we make the LHS Music Department better,” Joan said. “Duane would always come home for the evening meal and share that day’s topic of discussion with the family.”