'Professor Welk' Made the Scene Band Leader Clicked With UND Students, Faculty During 1973 Visit

Brue, Mike. "'Professor Welk' Made the Scene Band Leader Clicked With UND Students, Faculty During 1973 Visit." Grand Forks Herald, 20 May 1992, sec. 1A, 7A.

To UND students in September 1973, “long-hair music” meant John Lennon more than Ludwig van Beethoven. And the “big band” those days wasn’t Glenn Miller’s orchestra, but possibly Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones.

But “champagne music” meant only one thing--and one maker.

And that 70-year-old man came to UND that Sept. 24, serving as “Visiting Professor of Popular Culture” to a generation that largely ignored or scoffed at the bubbly music popularized on television.

“You’d think if anybody didn’t fit on a campus back then,” UND History Professor D. Jerome Tweton said this week, “it was Lawrence Welk.”

North Dakota’s famed native son was 89 when he died Sunday night in his Santa Monica, Calif., home. Thirty years of TV appearances made him an international favorite among the more mature set, but only after the three previous decades Welk spent entertaining Midwesterners with his accordion and band.

‘A man of the people’

“I’m an advocate of hard work,” Welk told UND students, according to a Herald story, “and being a ‘man of the people,’ I know my tastes are about the same as the audience. To be successful, you must be accepted by the audience.”

But how did UND students respond to Welk?

“We wondered about it,” UND President Thomas Clifford added. “We thought that maybe students wouldn’t respond to him.”

But Clifford and other witnesses says Welk’s ’73 visit--one of several to Grand Forks in Welk’s lifetime--might have earned one of the bandleader’s own descriptions: “Wunnerful.”

The former Strasburg, N.D., farm boy directed the UND Band in the Chester Fritz Auditorium and played the accordion before a capacity crowd of about 3,500 people of all ages, from throughout North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Welk also attended a luncheon in his honor.

And student reaction to his classroom appearances that day might have been summed up in a Herald quote from Jennifer Scoles, Carson, N.D., a UND sophomore who listened to “Professor Welk.”

“Far out,” Scoles said.

Rookie ‘professor’

“I’ve been called many things in my lifetime. ‘Corny.’ ‘Square.’ But never ‘professor,’” said Welk, noting his fourth-grade education and adding he felt “uneasy among all you learned people.”

“They loved it,” recalled Tweton, who first originated the idea to bring Welk to speak at “minicourses” about the bandleader’s career, his Germans-from-Russia heritage and popular music.

Tweton brought the idea to Clifford, who in turn sought help from Welk friend J. Lloyd Stone, then head of the UND Alumni Association. Welk accepted Stone’s invitation.

Welk’s heritage and the fact he was a native son “tempered a lot” of any negative connotations UND students may have held about Welk’s effervescent style of music, Clifford believes.

“The best gauge of that was the afternoon class which we were offering on Germans from Russia,” Tweton said. “He brought his accordion and talked a little bit about his influence, the role of music with his family, Tweton said. “And he just went to beat the band on that accordion. There was tremendous rapport with the students.”

Tweton, who met Welk several times, called him “a fantastic showman with no showman’s facade.… I think he was just terribly down to earth. He wouldn’t know how to put on airs if he tried.” That was evident during Welk’s ’73 visit, too, he said.

“He wanted to meet with me a little before we had a noon meeting, where he talked about music to some of the professors and some graduate students,” Tweton recalled. “He was terribly nervous about this. He said, ‘Now, let’s sort of work out a script here. Let’s work on these questions, and if I get into trouble, you come and help me with it.’

“Of course, he got out there and he didn’t need any help at all.”

Packing the Fritz

Later, Tweton and others were astounded to find the Chester Fritz Auditorium parking lot filled with cars, and the auditorium packed with people. Some people had to be turned away.

“For a small-time college band director, it was quite an exciting experience,” recalls Mayor Mike Polovitz, then the UND band director.

The band had prepared several weeks for a short program, getting some assistance from Frank Scott, a Fargoan who for 10 years handled Welk’s arrangements and also played piano and harpsichord for the bandleader.

Backstage, Welk talked a while with Polovitz and others, then “looked at the program and he picked out what he felt it should be,” the mayor said. “It became a Lawrence Welk program. We had a lot of mixtures--some Sousa marches and some ‘champagne music’ and what-not. I think it ended up all champagne music.”

‘He knows’

Tweton recalls how Welk stopped the band briefly when they had a brief practice under his direction. “He wasn’t happy with the pace,” Tweton said. “It was too heavy, and it was, too. He said, “By the time we’re through, you’re going to be able to play with the Lawrence Welk band.”

UND Band drummer Flavio Cianflone told the Herald: “He’s been around the music business 50 years. He knows.”

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

Although Welk had only a fourth-grade education, the bandleader knew his subject when he lectured to UND history students in 1973. Welk spoke at a minicourse on Welk, himself.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller