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Dee Palmer's last song: remembering DeKalb's iconic band conductor

The DeKalb area lost one of its most celebrated residents this weekend.  Dee Palmer died in his home Saturday, just a few months after wrapping up his 63rd season as conductor of the DeKalb Municipal Band.  He was 97.

For generations, Palmer’s band has been the sound of summer in DeKalb’s Hopkins Park.  The DeKalb Municipal Band, plus a chorus of crickets and car horns, puts on a free concert every Tuesday night from early June to mid-August.  Palmer was back behind the baton for the season finale, after missing much of the year because of an arm injury.  As the applause faded following the patriotic standby “The Stars and Stripes Forever,”  Palmer thanked the crowd for being there, hot or cold, rain or dry.  He said, “Until next June, I want to tell you folks we love you madly, and keep that in mind all winter.”

Dee Palmer is a DeKalb icon.  There’s even a statue of him standing in the shadow of the Hopkins Park band shell that’s named after him.  Not only was he the band’s conductor and head cheerleader for 63 years, he was a trumpeter and swing band leader. That was before he settled back in DeKalb, where his family ran a popular music store.   The DeKalb Municipal Band was in his blood. He told WNIJ in 2004, the year the band celebrated its 150th year, that his grandfather was director of the band from about 1880 to 1890, and his father played in and managed the band for many years.

DeKalb had a band two years before the city was even founded.  While bands formed and folded on a regular basis in towns across America, Palmer pointed out that DeKalb’s survived the Civil War and depressions because they always managed to maintain enough people to play.  In the 1920s, DeKalb voters approved a municipal band tax, which is how the band has been supported ever since.  In his 2006 interview with WNIJ about the city of DeKalb’s sesquicentennial, Palmer credited his father with making that tax possible by lobbying the state legislature.

Palmer saw a lot of change during his long life, from World War I to the Internet Age and every distraction in-between.  Palmer said there’ll always be a place for a hometown band, as long as they are willing to give the people what they want.  That’s why when he programmed a season, he tried to emulate the Boston Pops.  He said, “It’s a type of music and entertainment that I think will always be in vogue.  The future lies in entertaining the people, attracting your audience with the type of programming that you do.”

Joe Pasteris has played percussion for the DeKalb Municipal for 23 years.  He’s also the band’s librarian, which means pulling the music from the library and getting it into the proper musician’s hands.  He says he’ll miss Dee Palmer greatly: for one thing, Palmer never expressed anger at his band members, but treated them firmly and even-handedly when they needed it.  He’ll also miss the little things -- like how he threw his whole body into conducting.  Pasteris laughs when he tries to describe Palmer’s conducting style: “He kind of marches to the beat. Y ou know, where he swings his arms alternately. It just makes me kind of laugh when I see that.  But I think I’ll miss that part of it.”

Pasteris says if he could dedicate any song to Palmer -- well, that’s an easy choice.  The New Orleans standard, “A Closer Walk with Thee.”  He says Palmer loved his Dixieland music, and this spirited “second-line” standard will certainly be played at his funeral.

But the song that capped Dee Palmer’s long career on August 23rd was another crowd pleaser.  The Star Spangled Banner.  For one last time, the National Anthem was accompanied by crickets, car horns, and a crowd chanting, “Dee! Dee! Dee! Dee!”  Not a bad send-off for the man in the white suitcoat.

Funeral services for Dee Palmer are being planned for later this week in DeKalb.  The DeKalb Municipal Band will start its 158th season next June.  Since Palmer had said he would step down as conductor next year, the band’s leadership has been planning to try out guest conductors for the entire season. 

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.