Dean Hansen remembers the night he and his orchestra had a really hot ride.

It happened in the late 1970s. Hansen and the other musicians were coming home from a gig when their bus ran out of gas. They were outside of Brainard and it was 3:30 a.m.

With help from another band that happened on the scene, Hansen’s group was able to get a 5-gallon bucket with gas.

But there was a little water in the bottom of the bucket and the bus still didn’t start. So Hansen tried something else.

“I poured gas in the carburetor so it would start,” he said.

Both the plan and the bus backfired and a fire started inside the vehicle. The musicians rescued their instruments and used a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze, but the vehicle’s interior looked like a dusty, white feed mill.

“It was a nightmare,” Hansen said.

Yet it didn’t stop Hansen or the other band members from playing the polkas and waltzes for which the group is known.

On Aug. 26, the Dean Hansen Orchestra is set to play from noon to 2 p.m. and 4-5:30 p.m. during the Polka Fest at the Starlite Ballroom, 2045 County Road K, Wahoo.

Now 85 years old, Hansen notes that he may be nearing the conclusion of his public polka-playing days. The band that bears his name has performed for almost 40 years and has played in Nebraska and several other states. He’s been in the Sokol Hall of Fame in Omaha and the Polka Music Hall of Fame in New York.

And although his band only performs about two or three times a year, Hansen’s own musical tenure goes back decades.

Decked out in overalls — which he calls his “Barnyard Tuxedo” — Hansen sat at the kitchen table of his Ithaca-area farm and recalled his days as a musician.

Born in 1933, Hansen and his parents — Herman and Martha — lived on a farm at Elkhorn. Hansen’s dad was a gentle man who milked 10 to 12 cows twice a day along with raising crops. His mother was a small woman.

“But she was mighty,” Hansen said. “She could go bear hunting with a whip.”

Martha wasn’t really a bear hunter, but she and her spouse demonstrated fierce determination to help their son when he contracted polio at age 4 and could no longer walk.

A doctor told the Hansens their son wouldn’t be able to farm, but he’d prove the man wrong. Hansen had several leg surgeries and learned to walk all over again.

His parents also opted to get him interested in music and bought him an accordion when he was 8.

Hansen’s parents drove him from Elkhorn to Fremont each week for a 30-minute lesson with Fritz Poppe for $1.

Poppe taught Hansen for two years until World War II erupted and gas rationing began in the United States. Hansen then started taking lessons from a cousin, the late Donald Rolfs, who taught the boy until he was in high school.

“My mom made me practice,” Hansen remembered. “I always had to play for Ladies Aid … and different small functions and school programs.”

Hansen later took lessons at Johnny Svoboda’s Music Center in south Omaha. After graduating from Elkhorn High School in 1951, Hansen spent a year on the road with the Herb Molter’s band, but came home to help his dad on the farm.

In July 1952, Hansen got a call from Omaha’s Sparta Orchestra. He played with the group for the next few years and with the band when it was featured on the weekly KMA radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa.

Hansen met his future wife, Marguerite Blumer of Millard, at a dance. They married in 1955 and three years later he gave up the music business for a while. Their first child, Murray, was born in 1958.

The next year, while continuing to farm, Hansen joined Eddie Janak’s band. He played with the band from 1959-72. During that time, Hansen recorded four albums with the band and was featured on the polka show on KHUB radio station in Fremont.

Hansen remembers when the band played for the opening of the Fremont Mall, which he calls “something really extra special.”

The Hansens’ second child, Marla, was born in 1961 and their third, a son named Lonny, in 1965. Their fourth child, Lynette, was born in 1968.

In 1971, the Hansens moved to the Ithaca farm. That year, he joined the Ernie Kucera Orchestra of Abie. He made three recordings with the band and traveled with them throughout Ohio, Texas, South Dakota and Minnesota.

The Hansens’ son, Murray, played with the Moostash Joe Polka Band of Fremont. Their daughter, Marla, played trumpet with the Jim Bochnicek Orchestra of Omaha and son, Lonny, played drums with the Frank Kucera Orchestra of Schuyler.

Hansen started his own orchestra in 1979. The seven-piece band featured his own children. They would perform in several states with Marguerite booking the gigs.

After only three jobs, the Hansen family faced tragedy when Murray died in a farm accident on July 9, 1979.

“It’s tough,” Hansen said, adding that he and Murray had worked together every day on the farm. Murray was also planning to get married.

Hansen kept the band going and noted how music helped him. His group still plays about two or three times a year, he said.

Today, the Hansens’ daughter Marla Janak has a master’s degree in trumpet performance and teaches music in Springfield, he said. Lonny farms and also has the Lonny Lynn Orchestra. Lynette works for the Washington County Pilot-Tribune & Enterprise.

“I’m going to have to retire,” Hansen said as he looks toward the future.

But even then, he’ll still have memories of making music, recording albums — and the importance of not letting a bus run out of gas.

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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