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Community band is latest passion for Cloquet couple

Carol and Gene Risdon met in an archery class, where Gene was the instructor and Carol the student. Cupid struck and they've been together ever since, through thick and thin. Contributed Photo1 / 6
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Gene Risdon coaxes a tune out of a tiny harmonica. Although he plays trombone, harmonicas may be Gene's preferred instrument. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal3 / 6
The band also plays three Monday night concerts at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College each July. Photo by Tom Urbanski4 / 6
Steve Tomhave and his mother, Mary Tomhave, enjoy playing their instruments together on the Cloquet Community Band's Labor Day parade float in this photo taken by band director Carol Risdon. "What fun they were having along with the rest of the band members," Carol wrote. "That is why Gene and I enjoy the band so much that we are willing to have them come and practice at our garage."5 / 6
Carol Risdon plays bass drum and directs during the July Fourth parade in 2012. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal6 / 6

If you'd asked her 50, 40 or even 20 years ago, Carol Risdon would never have predicted she'd be directing the Cloquet Community Band. Heck, she wouldn't even have predicted she'd be playing bass drum for the band.

"Gene was the one [who was musical]," Carol said. "He played trombone in high school in Superior and Cloquet. I played zippo.

"I didn't get my musical ability until I was in my 50s."

Likely it seeped into her very being, the same way music creeps into a recent conversation with them, a welcome addition but not something deliberately sought out.

When Gene goes to find his case of harmonicas and starts playing "Skip to My Lou" on his favorite Echo Chromatic, Carol starts half singing, half humming the words.

A few minutes later, it's Gene who's singing "The most beautiful girl in the world," one of nearly 100 tunes he can play on the harmonica.

"This is one I've got to play for the wife," he says with a gentle smile.

During their 52 years of marriage, Gene and Carol Risdon raised four children and started several different businesses in Cloquet, including G&C Sports Inc., a bait shop, a bike repair shop (or combinations of all three) and a rock shop.

The Cloquet Community Band is their latest joint adventure, one that started close to 15 years ago.

This one is strictly not-for-profit, a labor of love.

Carol tells how she saw an advertisement in the Pine Knot newspaper all those years ago, that a community band was forming and they were looking for musicians to play.

"Gene always wanted to play, so I told him, 'Go join,'" she said. "I had no inkling at the time [to learn to play an instrument], but he came home and said, 'We really need a bass drummer. I think you could do that.'"

So Carol went with Gene to the next practice. She knew a little bit about music from choir and a few piano lessons years before. She could count.

"All I needed to do was keep the beat," Carol explained. "Gene bought me a little drum. Then he bought me a bigger one."

That went on for a couple years, then the band lost its director.

"They'd tell me, 'Carol, start us out,' and that's how it started," she said.

Although she was the one with the least musical training, Carol became the director. She is modest about her accomplishment, but Gene won't let it go that easily.

"She drums and directs," he said, moving his arms the way a director does. "That's the hardest thing in the world."

Community band members get together to practice on Monday nights at the Risdons' place. The couple owns an entire building on Avenue C in West End Cloquet. They rent out the two different offices on the street and make their home at the back end of the building, where they have a spacious upstairs apartment and an open "garage" area downstairs the size of a small dining hall... perfect for garage sales (a recent endeavor) and band practices (which will begin again as soon as they get the garage sale stuff cleaned out).

After an end-of-summer hiatus, Carol said practices will likely start again in October, in preparation for the band's annual Christmas concerts, held at the Presbyterian Church (where Gene and Carol attend) and the Gospel Tabernacle (whose pastor is a band member). It will be the band's 13th annual Christmas concert and will be followed a few months later by the band's 16th annual spring concert. The group also plays in both the July Fourth and Labor Day parades each summer. (Band members found it was too difficult to play for wintertime Home for the Holidays parade. Frozen fingers don't always cooperate, plus some of the band members are not as young as they once were.) The band also plays three Monday night concerts at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College each July.

Currently the Cloquet Community Band boasts about 18 people, although they have had as many as 22 musicians in the past. Current instruments include flute, tuba (sometimes), clarinet, trombone, drums, trumpet, baritone, saxophone and bells.

They are always looking for more people to join.

"We really need a trombone player," said Gene, who plays the trombone himself. "The fella that passed away [who used to play trombone with Gene] was really good. I miss him."

Anyone with some musical training is welcome. There's no money involved, although donations do help pay for two pizza parties every year for band members. Otherwise, it's strictly a volunteer effort.

"Cloquet Community Band is made up of people from all walks of life: professional and non-professional; retired and those still working," Carol said. "But when we come together for Monday night practice, we are all just people wanting to play our instruments and to provide enjoyment to the community."

She has a list of people and businesses she'd like to thank, including Cloquet Ford for allowing the band to use a truck and trailer for the parades and FDLTCC for hosting the three summer concerts at the college's amphitheater.

When asked what they like about the community band, Carol and Gene answer together, finishing each other's sentences, weaving them into something greater together.

"The people and the music," Carol said.

"... and playing for people, that we're able to play," Gene continued.

" ... and entertain at no charge," Carol finished.

"Learning, we start on a song and it's like kindergarten," Carol said. "The process of learning a song and gelling together. And the people," she adds. "The people are fun. Even though we are from all different walks of life, we're all one."

"We have a good time," Gene added. "And we play some pretty good music sometimes."

Of course, the Risdons do have a life outside of the community band.

They enjoy visiting with their sons, Tom and David, and their families, who live in the area. Gene's daughter from his first marriage (and Carol's stepdaughter), Irene, lives in Texas. His son, Gene Jr., passed away two years ago. There are seven grandchildren in Minnesota and six in Texas, plus great-grandchildren, even one grandson who is moving into the second upstairs apartment.

They love fishing, and caught some good-sized smallmouth bass this past weekend. They like to hunt deer and bear (when they can get a permit). Carol likes to garden "on the land," as she refers to it, 40 acres her son owns in the country on the Cloquet River. They also enjoy feeding the chipmunks when they're there, and taking lots of photos everywhere they go.

Carol has discovered another latent talent -- acting. She enjoys playing Santa Claus (long story) and even dressed up as clownish guest director "Annie Dinglehofer" and performed/directed while they played "Funeral March of a Marionette" last year.

Gene is a bit more low-key sometimes than his wife, but he's no wallflower.

"I keep pretty busy," Gene said. "Besides fishing, hunting and chasing Carol, I really enjoy the band. I enjoy the rocks too."

Their living space reflect their interests. Downstairs, there is a wall of rocks, agates and other shiny specimens that dot the shelves. Upstairs, a large bookcase holds row after row of tall slender white boxes filled with music for the band.

Married life is pretty good after 52 years, even though there were lots of ups and downs during those years.

"It's getting better," Carol said. "I have learned that life is precious. We do things together even more now."

Like making music.

"I would like to express my thanks to all the people in the band -- past and present -- for allowing me to be director, and for all the things they have taught me," Carol said toward the end of the interview. "You're never too old to learn and I find out something now almost every practice. It's a great learning experience.

"I can't even believe it sometimes, doing something that was never in your horizon."

Editor's note: Call Carol Risdon at 218-879-3968 with questions about the Cloquet Community Band. Remember, practice starts in October.