by Jerry Ervin
Lee Oler, along with Imogene Helm, Lillian Porter and Paul Scott, are the only four players from the original 1970 TFC membership who are still playing with us on a fairly regular basis.
If you’re going to have a chat with Lee Oler (OH-ler, not AH- ler), be prepared for the unexpected.
It starts off routinely enough: You sit down on the living room couch and Mollie, Lee’s super-friendly beagle, hops up next to you. She edges closer. And closer. Given any encouragement whatsoever, Mollie soon places her chin on your lap, and/or she rolls over on her back, clearly inviting a tummy rub.
Lee doesn’t need much encouragement to talk about her dogs: dogs she’s fostered, dogs she’s adopted, dogs she’s taken on from ill or deceased friends. Mostly beagles. And then there are the turtles. Stay tuned.
Lee was born in Illinois. Her father was a union man, a heavy equipment operator in the construction trades. “I still have his union button around here and wear it occasionally,” she says.
Lee got into music quite early. Her father had played violin in high school and her mother played piano, among other instruments. Lee learned to read music via piano lessons when she was seven years old. At roughly the same time, she says, “The music teacher in the school hijacked me: She had tryouts for playing violin, and I was chosen.” The fact that Lee has perfect pitch probably helped. In any case, she adds, “I was in the orchestra in second grade, sawing away on my little violin.”
She continued with violin for a couple of years, then the family moved. “We did a little stint in Redlands, CA because my asthma was a problem.” The California climate didn’t address the issue, however, “and the work [situation] was terrible for my dad.” So after less than a year it was back to the Midwest, this time to Iowa. “We stayed with my grandmother in Bellevue,” on the Mississippi River. “I loved it there,” Lee recalls fondly, and it was there that she finished fourth grade.
But soon it was back to Illinois, where the family rented a rustic cottage on a farm near Wheaton, west of Chicago. Already an animal lover, Lee was in her element: “It was out in the country; so many interesting things to do!” As if to add authenticity to this rural picture, Lee and her sister had to walk along the railroad tracks to their two-room schoolhouse.
Before the end of that school year, however, the family moved again, this time to Park Forest, a suburb south of Chicago. “That was fun, too” Lee recalls, “because I could walk to the Forest Preserve after school and the town had a real shopping center.”
And Lee still loved animals. “I had wanted a horse,” she says. Lo and behold, the family soon moved out to the edge of Park Forest, buying a house on an acre and a half of land. Lee got her horse. “And then I got another horse. That was what I was living for.”
Lee started flute when she was in the sixth grade. “Mother thought it would be good for my lungs.” Flute wouldn’t have been Lee’s first choice, she confesses: “I wanted something pretty, something like the baritone or French horn.” Nevertheless, by the time Lee was in high school she played flute pretty well, no doubt owing somewhat to the musical head start she’d had on violin and piano.
After high school, Lee attended the American Conservatory of Music (ACM) in downtown Chicago, living at home and commuting by train from Park Forest. She took a degree in music education, the first of her three degrees in music. “That’s the one that paid the bills all the time,” she observes wryly.
Though ACM was a rather small school, being there expanded Lee’s musical horizons: “That was the first time I ever played [flute] in an orchestra,” she says. She also had to take string methods, so she took up the violin again. She must have done rather well at it, because, she says, “My teacher encouraged me to buy a decent violin and bow,” which she did.
After earning her degree at ACM, Lee stayed on to do a Bachelor of Music in flute performance. Her teacher was Emil Eck, who had played in the Chicago Symphony and whose flute methods books (still available) may be familiar to some TFC members. And Lee herself was teaching flute at this time: “I had a private studio in Park Forest and I had a lot of really good students.”
Lee’s next academic stop was DePaul University, also in downtown Chicago, to pursue a master’s degree. There she studied flute with Donald Peck, who was at that time principal flute of the Chicago Symphony. [NOTE: Peck played in the Chicago Symphony for 42 years, 41 of them as principal flutist.] Peck had studied with William Kincaid and introduced Lee to the Marcel Moyse – William Kincaid tradition. “I learned a tremendous amount from Peck,” says Lee.
Upon graduation in 1970, Lee decided to move to Tucson. Why? She had a friend here and, “I did not like Mayor Daley and I did not like mud.” She arrived just in time to join the Tucson Flute Club, which was being formed by Phil Swanson, the new flute professor at the University of Arizona.
You might think it would have been natural for Lee, armed with three music degrees to seek a job somehow connected to her studies. But no: She tucked her flute under the bed so she could pursue other interests—Native American culture,
Lee’s next job was something of an improvement: She became a Title 1 aide at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. [NOTE: Title 1 is one of the provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. It is still in effect.] “There I met a lot of people who were interested in the Native American culture.” And in fact, Lee herself was working directly with students from Hopi and Navajo backgrounds.
But after two or three years in that position, Lee decided it was time to get a real job. “I’d put off getting [one] for a long time.” She started teaching band and general music at Tubac and Calabasas schools in Rio Rico (part of the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District #35). She chose to continue living in Tucson, however, so it was a long commute. Often she was able to car- pool; at other times—if there was an after-hours event that she had to attend, for example—”I’d pack up some clothes and impose on my students’ parents.”
Lee remained in the Calabasas/Rio Rico job for nine years, during which time she started to play—get this—trombone. Why trombone? “I had a really good student who wanted to play it,” Lee says, and she herself had wanted to play a shiny brass instrument ever since she was a girl. She and her student were learning together, and as Lee’s skill on the instrument grew, she began playing in a polka band (!) with some friends. Since then she has stayed with trombone: Over the last 30+ years she has traveled to Silverton, CO, every August to play with the Great Western Rocky Mountain Brass Band.
Now retired, Lee enjoys time for her widely varied interests and she continues to evolve. For example, she had played flute (alongside TFC member Fran Moskovitz) in the Civic Orchestra of Tucson (COT) for several years. But then she began to experience flute-related neck and shoulder problems. There was also the asthma issue, which had never fully disappeared. Finally, when you’re in a one-on-a-part section, you’re rather obligated to be at every rehearsal. So Lee asked COT director Herschel Kreloff if she could switch to playing violin. “He said, ‘Well, try it. I don’t want you to be a detriment to the section.’ So that’s when I started playing violin in the orchestra.” Bottom line? Lee resuscitated her violin playing and has been in the COT violin section for about ten years. For a number of years Lee also played flute and trombone in Beaver’s Tucson Concert Band.
And what was that about turtles? “At a 4th of July party one year my dog found what I first thought was a hamburger,” Lee explains matter- of-factly. It turned out to be a box turtle, and Lee still has it. “Its name is Hermione. I first named it Herman, but then found out it was a female.” As luck would have it, a trombonist friend was also a herpetologist. “He brought me more turtles,” says Lee, including two painted turtles, a snapping turtle and more box turtles.
Never one to spurn a new interest, Lee joined the Tucson Herpetological Society and is a regular member. In her backyard she now has a substantial, if compact, water feature for her aquatic charges; a separate area of her yard is devoted to nearly a dozen that prefer terra firma; and a tabletop terrarium houses another small box turtle. “I think it’s really interesting and I like my turtles,” she says simply.
To round out the variety of Lee’s activities these days, she is a life member of the Sierra Club and is ac- tive in Democratic party politics. How she finds time to do those things while keeping up with her dogs, violin, trombone, flute, and turtles is anyone’s guess. But that’s Lee, as anyone who is fortunate enough to spend time talking to her will quickly realize.
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