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'Old soul' befriends older generations; celebrates 18th birthday with polka

Gavin LeBlanc (right) polkas with Shirley Tremblay at the Cloquet VFW dance Dec. 15. LeBlanc, who celebrated his 18th birthday there, credits his grandfather with instilling a love for polka in him. Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal1 / 3
Jerry Bierschbach plays the accordion during the Cloquet VFW polka dance Dec. 15. He plays at dances all over northern Minnesota. Lisa Malcomb / Special to the Pine Journal2 / 3
Gavin LeBlanc (center) poses with his grandmother, Tootie LeBlanc (left), and grandfather, Pat LeBlanc. Gavin said when he was younger, Pat would pick him up after school and the pair would listen to polka music together. (Photo courtesy of Crystal and Wade LeBlanc)3 / 3

Going dancing for an 18th birthday celebration isn't unusual.

An 18-year-old celebrating at the Cloquet VFW's weekly polka dance, however, is another matter, but Silver Bay's Gavin LeBlanc isn't an average high school senior.

While LeBlanc has plenty of friends his age, he also spends much of his free time with men and women four to five times his age.

LeBlanc has what his mother, Crystal LeBlanc, calls an "old soul."

During his Dec. 15 dance and birthday party, which some of his younger friends attended, too, LeBlanc barely has a moment to talk between polka numbers performed by accordion player Jerry Bierschbach. He's dancing with his mother; his cousin; Shirley Trembley; and aunt, Karen Engman.

When he does get a moment to talk, he explains how he developed a love for polka music and befriending older generations by spending time with his grandfather, Pat LeBlanc.

"Almost every day after school, he would pick me up at my house," LeBlanc said. "This was the kind of music we'd listen to ... I liked it because when you hear it, you can't help but smile. Right now, I'm tapping my foot. I can't even help it."

His grandfather died in 2015, the the joy LeBlanc found in listening to polka and in spending time with older adults has only grown. He said he's learned a lot from spending time with older adults, like how to work on his pickup truck and an old television. He said the older adults have also taught him about something else, too: kindness.

"They're kind to everybody," he said. "They're not like today's generation. If someone walks by, they say hello, no matter what, and I think I have a lot of those traits, too."

LeBlanc's love of polka has also led him to start learning to play the concertina — an instrument similar to an accordion — and he said he hopes someday he can perform at one of the polka dances he enjoys so much. Bierschbach, who sees LeBlanc regularly at polka dances, even said he plans to bring a copy of a book to help the young man learn to play.

LeBlanc has some advice for people his own age — some of whom may not be so open-minded about listening to polka or other old-fashioned music.

"Tell the young people to get out and dance," he said. "Try it and you'll like it."

He doesn't have much time to talk, though. Gavin has another dance partner picked out in the dance hall.

"You're next," he said to her as a smile spread across his face.

The Cloquet VFW hosts weekly polka dances from 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. For a schedule of performers, contact the Cloquet VFW at 218-879-2447.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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