By ALICE H. DUNN
Eighty-seven-year-old Pocatellan Joe Willes is no man to rest on his laurels. He has formally retired twice and still pursues many interests.
His energetic habits developed as he grew up during WWII on a two-and-one-half acre farm within city limits.
Willes’s father was away much of the time, working for Union Pacific Railroad while his stay-at-home mom kept the house and looked after their five children. He had chickens to tend and a cow to milk before riding his bicycle several miles to school plus a garden to hoe when he got home.
Willes still rides bicycles often. He has five times completed the Los Angeles Bike Tour, which runs in conjunction with their Marathon.
In one of the two sheds in his backyard, he keeps his bicycles in perfect running condition. In the other he builds curio cabinets and creates conductor’s batons and pens, using wood and acrylic material to shape his Bolt Action—the bolt extends the pen point the way a rifle ejects a bullet casing.
He makes other pens as well: a red, white, and blue Civil War with bullet-like tip and cap, a business style Wall Street-style business pen, a European Apprentice pen topped with a cap like an old-fashioned fountain pen, and a sleek Long Pen with a short rubber grip. Fashioned to look like its name, his Cigar Pen is actually made of wood.
Willes chooses beautiful, fine-grained woods for his baton grips.
He exercises several mornings a week with a senior group at a local gym and organizes activities for his 1949 high school graduating class. Most retired folks would consider that enough activity, but Willes also maintains an active interest in music.
Willes’s father introduced his children to music by playing harmonica at home as evening entertainment, but it was his older son, already in the high school band, who inspired the younger Willes to sign up for band at Irving Junior High. “He always looked after me,” said Willes.
Trumpet, the “spotlight instrument,” was Willes’s first choice, but he switched to trombone “because it was the instrument I played best.”
He eventually got his bachelor’s degree in music, from Idaho State University, and was adept at playing any instrument well enough to teach it.
Willes first retired in 1996 from District Coordinator of Pocatello-Chubbuck School District’s music programs. Previously, he had taught band and orchestra for 13 years at Pocatello’s Highland High School, following a stint at Alameda Junior High School. He also taught at Marsh Valley High School as well as Filer High School, teaching both band and choir.
Willes’s proficiency on the trombone earned him a seat in the 45-member Pocatello Municipal Band while still in high school. Seats in that band, which was organized in 1934, are rarely vacant.
He was selected as the municipal band’s third conductor in 1965.
The band responded to Willes’s final directing performance in August, 2015, with an exhilarating concert. He resumed his seat in the trombone section. He has been a member for 71 years.
No martyr, Willes has always found the time and energy to participate in fun and creative activities that give him pleasure and fulfillment.
His high school dance band usually played for the school dances, but he always managed to break away for a couple of spins around the floor with his sweetheart, Isobel.
Married to Isabel and beginning his third year of college, Willes was devastated by a draft notice during the Korean War. He was already enrolled in the college National Guard program and expected it to fulfill his military obligation.
Willes personifies the saying, “When life deals you lemons, make lemonade” by earning assignment to the Camp Roberts 50-member armored division band.
Another lemon lurked, however. Camp Roberts closed, ending his time in the band. By then a father with only nine months of his hitch remaining, Willes was shipped to Korea as a military policeman. To keep his mind off his sorrow, he applied himself to working with GIs who “sometimes bent the rules.” He regards his nine months in Korea as good experience: “It taught me traffic control and logistics as well as how to work with men,” all benefits to his career.
Directing the municipal band, Willes initiated vocal solo performances. Once when the soloist didn’t show up, a saxophonist volunteered to substitute. She belted out the famous aria “Messun Dorma” like a star. Willes invited her to perform for several summers until circumstances took her away.
He also started a guest conductor program, either drawing a name from a basket filled by audience members or inviting a representative from the performance’s sponsoring organization to conduct. After 30 seconds of instruction, the tyro conductor, often a child, led the band in a spirited march.
At the end of the number, Willes would gift the guest conductor with the baton.
Willes, selected from the city band for “Band on Demand,” a small group of the band’s best musicians, helped raise more than $100,000 for the Pocatello Art Center, Idaho State Symphony, and ISU.
He also continues his long-time volunteer service directing his church choir.
He once directed 600 voices from several local churches choirs to perform for a visiting dignitary who said, “They sounded as good as the Tabernacle Choir!” Perhaps that was the highlight of Willes’s whole musical career.
Currently, Willes enjoys part-time employment repairing band instruments for a local music store. Who knows when he will retire a third time? When he does, he will probably still respond when a neighbor child’s musical instrument has problems by repairing it for free.