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In My Life

Dance band kept him busy for 30 years

Dance band kept him busy for 30 years

July 26, 2007|By GLORIA DAHLHAMER

Editor's note: This is one in a series of profiles of area residents who share the stories of their lives and experiences. A profile will be published on the last Thursday of each month on the Young at Heart pages.




When you look at Albert Gruber, you see a satisfied man.

At age 92, he says confidently, "I've had a good life. Everything good overrides any complaints."

He says that despite losing his wife of 64 years, undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery, and having two knee replacements.

He demonstrates that satisfaction by faithfully visiting the sick and shut-in members of his church every week.

When asked the secret of his active longevity, he shrugs. "I just keep going."

However, he admits to being lonely at times. The youngest of eight siblings, he is the only surviving member of his immediate family. A 1934 graduate of Hagerstown High School, he is one of only a handful of surviving classmates. And as the leader of Hagerstown's Club Royal Orchestra for 30 years, he is the only surviving member of that popular dance band.

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Gruber is also the last surviving original member of Boy Scout Troop 4, which was organized in 1927 at St. Paul's Methodist Church, now John Wesley United Methodist.

"I enjoy my life," he says, but he admits to feeling lonely with so many of his contemporaries gone.

Last year, his high school class of 200-plus members held a reunion. Only 15 members showed up.

"It's sad. All my school kids, my band kids, my Boy Scouts are all gone."

A native of Hagerstown, Gruber went to work at Pangborn Corporation after graduating from Hagerstown High School. He stayed 46 years, retiring in 1979 as supervisor of customer service.

The company had three owners during his long tenure at the Hagerstown corporation, but he remained faithful through all the changes.

During most of those years, Gruber spent his weekends and holidays leading the Club Royal Orchestra.

He was the drummer for the orchestra of eight to 10 members as well as the front man.

"We played at clubs, at schools, at the VA Center in Martinsburg," he says, recounting the band's travels throughout the Tri-State area, from Cumberland to Frederick, the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, and Franklin County, Pa.

"We played at Elks clubs, the Eagles Club, the old country club (now Morris Frock American Legion Home), and the Alexander Hotel Ballroom. We were booked almost every weekend," he says proudly.

During the orchestra's lifespan, Gruber says, between 30 and 40 local musicians passed through its ranks.

"We played strictly dance music," he says. "We got out when all that hillbilly stuff started."

When he is in a reminiscent mood, the nonagenarian tells stories of his days at high school when John D. Zentmyer was principal and Miss Catherine Beachley was vice principal.

"They were strict," he says, "but we got a good education." There were only two courses available then: academic and commercial. Enrolled in the academic course, he says, "We still had the three R's (reading, writing and 'rithmetic), plus Latin and physics and chemistry and civics."

He also can recall an era when downtown Hagerstown was a thriving commercial district. When the Harry S. Myers grocery was on the corner of Potomac and Franklin streets, Fleisher's clothing store and the office of Dr. Brown the optometrist occupied the Square. When Hagerstown boasted four movie theaters - The Maryland, The Colonial (now a church), The Palace (later called Henry's Theater) and The Academy on West Washington Street. When the Keystone Restaurant and later People's Drug Store were on the Square.

Gruber also remembers the Abe Martin grocery, which occupied a choice spot on the Square.

"It was the only store that sold kosher meats" for the Jewish population, he says. "They'd slaughter the animals in a slaughterhouse behind Hankey's ice cream parlor on East Franklin Street, and then carry the meat down to Abe Martin's store. I was friends with the Hankey boys and we used to stand in their backyard and watch."

Gruber's father was a photographer, the owner of Gruber's Studio, and young Albert often helped his father during his school years. He also was an active member of the old Hagerstown YMCA on North Potomac Street, active on the swimming and tumbling teams.

After his retirement, he volunteered with the American Red Cross as a driver, taking children to hospitals in Cumberland, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

But all that was long ago, he says. Today his life is centered in his church - John Wesley United Methodist. He served as general superintendent when it was still St. Paul's, he is a life member of the church's official board, and he has been an active member of the Wesleyan class since 1939.

He was president of the class three times and is now the class historian as well as chairman of the "sick and call" committee.

Pausing in his ruminations, he affirms that life is good. "I'm satisfied," he says.

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