JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Mr. Curtis Troutman of Womelsdorf, PA

We moved to Richland, PA, in June, 1957, so in September I started attending Richland School in third grade. At that time third grade was divided between two classrooms, the division being accomplished by alphabetical order. As my last name began with a “T”, I was in Miss Margaret Klopp’s room along with (and I’m doing this from memory, so I might have a name or two wrong) Skeet Seldomridge, Richie Spitler, Johnnie Steinbach, Steve Weik, Bobby Weinhold, and Pam Barry.

Curtis Troutman circa 1945

The astute reader will at once notice two anomalies: that’s an extremely small class size and Pam Barry’s name isn’t near the end of the alphabet. Both are easily explained. In addition to teaching that fragment of the third grade, Miss Margaret Klopp also had the entire fourth grade class to teach that year. And Pam Barry was scrunched in with us because her mother, Mrs. Helen Barry, was the teacher of the other segment of third graders.

One day shortly after the school year began, our little band of third graders from Miss Klopp’s room was shepherded into Mrs. Helen Barry’s room where I was shocked to see my uncle Curtis standing in front of the blackboard. (If you need a refresher on my uncle Curtis, I wrote about him briefly in the post on my piano teachers.)

As my fellow third graders were being seated, Mrs. Barry turned to me and asked me to do the honors of introducing this man to the class. As I walked to the front of the room, she whispered in my ear, “Mr. Troutman!” It’s good she did or I almost certainly would have introduced him as Curtis!

I had realized by this time that Curtis was there in his capacity as a music teacher; I just hadn’t realized before this that he was going to be our music teacher. So I introduced him to the class as Mr. Troutman. (By the way, Mrs. Barry taught both third and second grades; I don’t recall if her second grade class was present for the music lesson or if they had been shuffled off to parts unknown.)

It’s odd, given that I’m accused of having such a good memory for those days, but I don’t recall very much about Curtis’s music classes. What I recall most (well, besides the flutophone that he taught some of us to play one year) is the yearly concerts that he organized, and thinking back, it must have involved some major organizational skills on his part. I am retroactively impressed.

The concerts involved several classes from grades four, five, and six, I think, from several different schools being rehearsed separately for months. Each grade got to sing a single part of the harmony, with, as I dimly recall, the youngest class singing the soprano or melody line, and each succeeding grade being given the corresponding lower harmony line, with the sixth graders getting the bass line. As I said this was all rehearsed separately for months, once a week during the regular music lesson, until just before the concert itself when finally all the classes from the surrounding schools would come together for a joint rehearsal. The logistics of rehearsing and organizing and trying to control a bunch of elementary school kids in an endeavor like that gives me the willies, and I don’t know how Curtis managed to pull it off year after year.

I only remember one of those concerts, the one when I was in fifth grade. Each of the songs that the amassed students performed was accompanied on the piano by a fellow student, with Curtis (or perhaps I really should refer to him as Mr. Troutman) doling out the responsibility to a suitably worthy student. That year I was given one number to play; I don’t know what it was, but it was probably something relatively simple such as a hymn with nothing but chords to play, as neither Curtis (my uncle) nor Mr. Troutman (our music teacher) had any illusions about my piano playing abilities.

Curtis Troutman circa 1952

All the other songs except one were assigned to two extremely talented pianists, a girl and a boy, who, being that they were from a different school, were completely unknown to me. And if I learned their names then, I quickly forgot them because I don’t think I knew them until years later when the schools combined as Eastern Lebanon County (Elco), and I got to know Steve Sattazahn and Cindy Keller.

The one other song, “Oklahoma!”, that was assigned to another student was taken by multi-talented sixth-grader Carolyn Sonnen. That was the first time I had ever heard that song, and it’s the only song that I specifically recall us singing. I can still remember the thrill of singing “Okla- Homa! Okla- Homa!” over and over as the soprano voices soared over the top with the melody in the final peroration. We gave a thoroughly rousing rendition, I’m certain.

There was only one problem. Multi-talented though Carolyn Sonnen may have been (in addition to the piano, she also played the flute), Mr. Troutman was not satisfied with her piano rendition of that song. At the last minute he decided that he would have to play the piano part himself, relegating her to page turner. She was humiliated by this turn of events, and I’m certain that seeing Steve and Cindy playing all those other songs just rubbed salt into the wound.

The next school day, she took her disappointment out on me, as it was well known that Mr. Troutman was my uncle, not, of course, that I could do anything about it. For my part, I didn’t think her playing had been disqualifying, but it wasn’t my opinion that mattered, and for the record, I don’t recall being particularly uncomfortable when she expressed her displeasure to me.

Curtis Calvin Troutman was born on April 24, 1929, the fourth and youngest son of John and Edna (Moyer) Troutman. I don’t have any details about his early life, but he received a degree in music from Lebanon Valley College and during the Korean War he was drafted and sent overseas. He must have spent some time in Japan (I don’t know if he was stationed there or just went there for R&R), because when he came home, he had a lot of Japanese items and knew some of the language (as did his sister Irene, but I’m not sure when she spent time there).

He taught me three words of Japanese (which much later I was able to verify with someone who knows Japanese, although Google translate does not seem to translate them in the same way), and although he never wrote them down (I couldn’t read at the time anyway), I’ll do my best to transliterate: “skoh-shee” meaning “small”; “kahks-ahn” meaning large; and “voh-kah-teh” meaning “understand”. The last one became the most important, as for some time after that, whenever he tried to explain something to me, he would conclude with “Voh-kah-teh?” to see if I had understood what he had said.

Curtis Troutman as organist at Christ Lutheran Church, Stouchsburg

Somewhere around the time I was five, he made a tape recording of music from Chaikovsky’s Nutcracker (I don’t know if it was just the suite or if it included more of the music of the ballet) along with his narration of the story and tried to get me to listen to it. But I resisted. A story about a nutcracker just didn’t sound interesting to me. From the vantage of 65 years I think I can add another reason that I didn’t quite understand at the time. He was talking down to me, and I could feel that emotionally and I resented it, even if I couldn’t have put it into words at the time. It seems strange that he could have been so successful as a music teacher (and I think he was a good teacher), and yet couldn’t relate entirely successfully with his nephew.

There was one major downside to having Curtis as our music teacher during third through sixth grades, and that downside had a name: Mrs. Helen Barry. You see, not only was Mrs. Barry the second and third grade teacher, she was also Pam’s mother, and from time to time I’d encounter her in that capacity. And she and I would chat, usually just exchanging pleasantries, really about nothing important, but—

Absolutely anything that I said to Helen Barry would invariably make its way to Curtis who would immediately pass it on to my mother, usually entirely devoid of context. Need I remind you how even the most innocent remark when stripped of its context can take on the most embarrassing of connotations? And my mother always took things in the worst possible way. Actually, now that I think about it, this data transmission didn’t stop after I left sixth grade; Helen Barry was still passing info to Curtis and thus to my mom even during my high school years. You’d think I would have learned by then.

Curtis and his wife Arlene with my parents Arlene and Tuffy circa 2002

Curtis remained living with his parents on the farm until they sold it around 1964, I think. In fact, he was quite active on the farm; I remember during the auctioning of the livestock when the farm was sold, he played a very active role.

He continued to live with his parents when they moved into Womelsdorf until they died in 1965 and 66. Shortly after that he married a woman named Arlene Boltz; so not only was my mother named Arlene, but so was one of my aunts.

They lived in Lebanon, and after that I only had sporadic contact with him, chiefly at funerals or my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Curtis was organist and/or music director at a number of churches in the area, including Christ Lutheran Church, Stouchsburg.

His wife Arlene passed away in 2012, and Curtis died on October 27, 2015, at the Lebanon Valley Home in Annville.