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It's Our Turn: Wencl keeps music alive

The Douglas County Courthouse is the setting for free concerts every Thursday night through the summer, courtesy of the Red Willow Arts Coalition. (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)1 / 2
The Red Willow Arts Coalition board poses prior to a recent event. (From left) Program director Chuck Wencl, Scott Dybedahl, Mandy Wencl, Jess Ptacek, Rose Hansen and Michelle Wencl. (Contributed)2 / 2

Each Thursday night for 15 weeks, Chuck Wencl walks briskly in front of the Douglas County Courthouse steps and speaks to hundreds of people.

It's always an impressive audience, whether the crowd nearly hits 2,000 as it did a few weeks ago for The Whitesidewalls, or when the usually-dependable summer weather turns threatening and reduces that number by several hundred. It's also a receptive audience, and they quickly pipe down to hear what Wencl has to say.

Whatever it is — typically his words are a mix of directions as to how things work on Thursday nights, what to expect, praise for the sponsors and a glowing introduction of that week's band — Wencl does it with the unmistakable look of someone who would rather be there than anywhere else. Whether that's true is irrelevant. With a twinkle in his eye and a grin that conjures up thoughts of Red Skelton, he convinces you that it is, and that's enough.

And why not? The 66-year-old Wencl, program director of the Red Willow Arts Coalition, is about to yield the outdoor stage to a collection of talented musicians. As someone who began his career as a professional musician at the age of 15, playing saxophone in a band with his father, he can fully appreciate their talents and enjoy their music.

"My dad was a drummer. His name was Charles as well, and there was a sign painter who had a shop on 15th Avenue in Alex who was a very good accordion player by the name of Ray Haaman," Wencl recalls. They were billed as the Charles Ray Trio — a takeoff on the Ray Charles Trio — and were booked at the Corral Saloon in Nelson the first Saturday of every month, and all the waltzes and two-steps they played made them very much in demand at weddings.

He was a musician in the Navy for four years, went back to school in Morris, and started working for Sid Carlson at Carlson Music. Today he still gives music lessons year round.

"This is something I really love to do," Wencl said. "It gives our lives purpose."

This summer he is teaching 15 students on nine different instruments and learning a new instrument himself. He has taken up the bagpipes and is playing with a pipe band in St. Cloud.

"That's my current challenge," he said.

Wencl was on "Quad A" board (the Andria Theatre) for several years, was a technical director at the theater and has been involved in the area arts scene for some time. So he's at home being the point man for the coalition.

"It goes along with the territory," he said, before sharing what it's like to look out at a courthouse lawn filled with people. "It's incredibly fulfilling to see that number of people there on a weekly basis. When we first started, if we got 200 people there we were just pleased as could be."

Wencl's work isn't done after introducing the band. He mingles with the audience and he joins other members of the coalition in passing a hat (OK, it's actually a red bucket) to collect contributions to keep the tradition going. He figures they average about 70 cents per person.

"We're humbled by the fact that people want to put their dollar in the jar, because this really is theirs. We do this for the community."

In this day, when it's impossible for people to agree on anything, there is a unique moment at intermission that manages to do just that. In exchange for obtaining grant money from the Lakes Regional Arts Council, he asks if the concerts have a positive effect on the community, and if they are important. Invariably, nearly all hands shoot up in the air.

"It's good to get that universal response that yes, it is a good thing we're doing," Wencl said. "It's just gratifying to know that the community believes in it."

By the time most of you read this, only three opportunities remain to pull up lawn chairs at the courthouse lawn and see for yourself what these gatherings are all about. I Witness puts a wrap on the 2018 season Thursday, Aug. 30, and then Wencl is free again to move about the country, and not be committed to spending every Thursday night in Alexandria.

But as we've already established, there isn't anyplace else he would rather be.

• • •

"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.

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