OWATONNA — Leslea Partridge feels a responsibility to Harry Wenger, the namesake of the upcoming Harry Wenger Marching Band Festival that will hit the streets of Owatonna as it has since 2010 on the third weekend of June.
“We have a duty to Harry Wenger, a duty to the Wenger Foundation, and a duty to the city of Owatonna, our sponsors and our patrons,” said Partridge, the president of the festival board.
And what is that responsibility?
“Encouraging music in our youth,” Partridge said. “It’s a lifelong thing, the love of music. Music is a valuable part of people’s lives.”
That is especially true, she said, in the city of Owatonna, where people like Harry Wenger instilled that love of music in people’s lives from an early age.
“We have to keep hold of that heritage in our city,” Partridge said. “It’s our charge to carry it on to the future. That’s what this festival is trying to do.”
Owatonna’s ‘Music Man’
From its inaugural year through today — and no doubt into the future — the Harry Wenger Marching Band Festival has been and will continue to be a fitting tribute to one of Owatonna’s leading businessmen, whose lifelong relationship with music started as a passion which became his livelihood and ultimately spurred the creation of a multi-million dollar corporation with a global presence.
However, Wenger is not simply remembered as a business mogul, but “The Music Man” — a hard-working innovator with a wide practical streak and a soft heart. He is perhaps best described by a telling line in a tract written for his memorial service in 1992.
“Harry had square, efficient, expressive hands — hands that could direct a symphony, devise an intricate mechanism, clean fish, skin a deer, pat a child on the head or caress a loved one,” it reads.
Harry Wenger was born on Oct. 5, 1906, near Wayland, Iowa — a small town in the state’s southeastern corner. His parents were Swiss-German Mennonites — farmers who ultimately raised nine children. Harry was the middle child.
Hard work and long hours defined Harry’s life from the very beginning. He and his siblings adhered to a strict routine during the week working the family farm — milking cows, shocking grain, tilling the fields and collecting eggs.
Wenger attended a country school until eighth grade. Most Mennonite boys did not get further than that, but his parents allowed their children to go to high school if they agreed to keep up with their farm work.
Wenger bloomed in high school. He discovered his calling after sharing a cornet with his brother in the band. He was soon the lead tenor in the school’s operetta. The family encouraged his interest in music and bought a piano. In the evenings, the family sang hymns together. Before long, young Harry was asked to lead the choir at church.
According to Mennonite tradition, he stayed on the family farm until he was 21 years old. After he came of age, he left home with $80 earned from a fall of shucking corn. He used the money to enroll at the Teacher’s College in Cedar Falls, Iowa — now known as the University of Northern Iowa.
After graduation, Wenger landed a job teaching music in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, thanks to a well-placed neighbor who appreciated his efforts to rid the neighborhood of the old barn, which was apparently quite an eyesore.
That simple twist of fate led Wenger to his future wife, Ruth McCorkle, a fellow music lover and cornet player. The two played together in the local brass ensemble and it was the start of a lifelong duet. The two married three years later.
Meanwhile, the Great Depression lay hard on the U.S. Harry and Ruth Wenger muddled through with a succession of teaching jobs in Iowa’s small towns. In spite of widespread economic strain, Harry Wenger earned a degree in Iowa City all the while holding a full-time job teaching music.
In 1936, the Wengers made their way to Owatonna, where he took over the school’s music department. Students flourished under his instruction.
During this time, he began tinkering in the basement of his house on Mitchell Street, trying to create a better conducting baton or music stand.
In 1946, he created and patented a special chair to help children balance the unwieldy sousaphone. That same year, he officially formed the Wenger Company.
In 1953, he resigned from teaching to take up manufacturing full-time. Employees remember Harry as a diligent and personable boss who made a point of touring the factory floor at least once a week to talk to each and every worker.
By 1967, the company was bursting out of their small quarters. That year, Wenger Company moved to its current location in Owatonna’s Industrial Park. Between 1967 and 1998, the company expanded six times.
The heritage of Harry Wenger
Though this is her first year as president of the festival board, Leslea Partridge has been involved with the event since the beginning. Her son was a drummer in the Owatonna High School marching band and she was a chaperone when the band traveled to other communities for their festivals — something that made her wonder why Owatonna, a town so steeped in its musical heritage, didn’t have a festival of its own.
What she didn’t know is that others — Kim Cosens and Pete Guenther, among others — were already talking about that very thing. That is, she didn’t know until she was approached by Guenther, the high school band director, who asked her if she was interested in being a part of the band festival committee. That was in the summer of 2009, she said, and she’s been a member of the committee ever since, taking over the leadership reins from Kim Cosens this year.
But for Partridge, the roots of the festival are firmly rooted in Harry Wenger himself. For her personally that’s definitely true. Both her father, Dean Hartle, and her father-in-law, Jim Partridge, were students of Wenger, as were this year’s parade marshals, the Zamboni twins, Jean and Edith.
“They’ve been very active in the arts, and music is one of them,” said Leslea Partridge, adding that the sisters were chosen to “represent all the students Harry had.”
This year’s parade will begin at 11 a.m., proceeding up Lincoln Avenue to Main Street, then on to Cedar Avenue where the bands will disperse. They will return to Central Park in downtown Owatonna that afternoon for the awards ceremony.