'Deano' Balcomb honored on birthday
STEVENSVILLE - "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!"
A group of friends sits on a porch one recent warm afternoon, singing to a man in a lawn chair. It's a special birthday, for a special person.
Dean Balcomb of Stevensville is turning 87. His guests are using the occasion to honor him for all his kind-hearted work over the years helping others, especially veterans.
"You are a true philanthropist," state Rep. Tina Pickett says, reading from a House of Representatives citation. Pickett has brought Dean two special awards from the state government. The citation adds he has "contributed to the well-being of others."
Dean, a talented musician, has led bands of one kind or another most of his life. And for more than 20 years he's brought one to the local annual Veterans Appreciation Day picnics. Today, VAD committee members, Pickett and other friends are visiting to bring the honors and hold a small party.
"And you helped a lot of people," friend Mary Skillings praises.
"You are THE MAN!" committee member Bob Brenner declares.
Dean grew up in the Forty Fort, Pa., area. "He had a band ever since we were in ... high school," his wife, Sara, reports.
He served in the Navy during World War II, as an electrician's mate first class aboard a plane - and also as a bandleader.
Dean and Sara married in 1947. They moved to Bradford County in 1950 and raised two daughters, Sheryl Beth and Louise. Dean worked for Commonwealth Telephone; Modern Design, in Vestal, N.Y.; and later as business manager for the Wyalusing School District. Sara was a home ec teacher.
In the meantime, Dean joined the Masonic organization. Lucky for him - and for them.
Masons who advance high enough in the organization can join a group called the Shrine. The Irem Temple in Wilkes-Barre is the headquarters for area Shriners. Dean started working up through the Masons and in the late 1950s formed the Irem Temple String Band. He would end up directing it for many a year.
What a group! Playing older music, including Big Band tunes, polkas, even soft rock, they took their act near and far - to the St. Patrick's Day Parade, Riverfest, Atlantic City, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and more, often for Shrine conventions. The Shrine supports crippled and burned children, and the band often played for hospital patients.
And the act - you shoulda' seen it! Strutters prancing with big feather "tails" on their backs; sometimes hairy-legged men in grass hula skirts. Dean might wear a sparkling red jacket, a black or white tuxedo, or a gold coat adorned with - tigers?! He might plop on a cowboy hat, or a Willie Nelson cap complete with fake ponytail.
Yes, those were the days.
Sometimes they turned tough, though. In 1980 Dean smashed an ankle and knee in a fall on a construction site and ended up in a body cast and wheelchairs. But he stayed with the band. Another time, he tripped over a wheelchair at a concert and went to the ER. He stayed with the band.
The group won many trophies, and in 1996, Irem named its new members the "Dean Balcomb Ceremonial Class" in honor of its bandleader.
Dean plays all kinds of instruments, specializing in saxophone (Sara plays that, too.) and glockenspiel. He has an organ, a piano, a keyboard, a banjo and an electric guitar - and that's just in the living room. Out in a garage, he has about 50 instruments. It used to be 80 - he's whittled down. All this, in spite of having little formal musical training.
Dean also formed a smaller, local group called "Deano's Band," separate from the Shrine. It, too, plays all over and has helped many years at VAD.
Bob has worked the sound system at the picnics and watched Dean in action ("You're the only one that can make him a SOUND man!" friend Wes Skillings quips.) He remembers the time Dean showed up with a flag painted on his head. And how many times has he seen the director give a 1-2-3 count with his fingers and hurtle the band into a song? "It was like it all came together!"
Dean's a "very talented musician," Pickett says in her presentation. "Untold thousands have seen you at the Veterans Appreciation Day picnic."
Dean, aka "Dean,." has also taken his "gang" to the personal care homes in Towanda and Wyalusing, and to the Methodist Home in Sullivan County, and to Vestal, and to the Spring Hill UM Church dinner for nursing-home residents, and the park along the river in Towanda, and ... and ...
But it's not just for fun. Through concerts and on his own, Dean has supported countless children and adults with medical needs. He helps people get medical equipment and meets other needs. It's like a calling, for him, a job.
"It's people like you that make the state successful," Pickett says during her presentation.
Besides the House citation, which praises all his work over the years and honors his birthday, she gives him a certificate specifically for his VAD performances.
Then it's time for ... food! Bob and fellow VAD committee members Tom and Diane Elliott present Dean a chocolate birthday cake with white icing, red and blue swirls on the edges, and frosting balloons. The Happy Birthday napkins, of course, show little musical notes. They also give him a VAD ballcap and T-shirt - one for Sara, too.
"You don't know how much I appreciate this!' Dean declares.
Deano's Band is on break right now, with several members on the sick list or away. But as soon as he can round folks up again, he says - they'll be back.
They'll be tooting, and strumming and pounding out a beat - maybe wearing a funny hat or two - and helping. And making people happy.
All thanks to a guy named Deano.
Dean Balcomb's 87th birthday is this Saturday, July 21. You may send him a card at: Dean Balcomb, 58 Melody Lane, Wyalusing, PA 18853.
(Some information for this story came from a 1996 Review article on Dean Balcomb, written by the same reporter.)