WORTHINGTON — Galen Benton has certainly kept himself active since his retirement, but he’s happy to be a little extra busier these days.
After COVID-19 restrictions limited Benton’s opportunities to provide musical entertainment to folks throughout southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa during this past year, he’s now getting back to his old routine. This past Thursday afternoon (April 29), Benton was in a familiar spot at Ecumen Meadows, performing songs on his accordion from multiple eras and genres.
“I come here once every month in normal times,” Benton said. “Of course, everything was on hold from March 2020 … and I didn’t do one of these for several months. This is the third time I’ve been here now in the past three months.”
Benton’s entertainment venues go far beyond Ecumen Meadows, of course, as he also plays before staff and residents of Golden Horizons, South Shore Care Center, Crossroads Care Center and Sunshine Apartments, all in Worthington. He’s also been a regular at other locales across the region, too, since his 2007 retirement from teaching music at Minnesota West Community & Technical College.
“I had taken accordion lessons when I was 10 years and played until I got out of high school, and then didn’t do much with it until I retired from the college in 1982,” Benton explained. “Then, I went out and got all this electronic equipment, so I had to learn how to run it and also get a repertoire of music ready. I started doing a little bit here and there — I played in Windom, Heron Lake, Lakefield, Sheldon (Iowa), Correctionville, Iowa, and in Pipestone at the Good Samaritan Center.
“My next birthday, I’m going to be 80, so I’ve cut down quite a bit and am kind of reducing my commitments,” he continued. “I still play in town … and I’ll still go to the veterans’ home in Luverne because they’re veterans and I like to do that for them. I’ll also play at Country View Manor and Heartwood Heights, both in Sibley (Iowa).”
Benton has been a face of local music — and made plenty of sounds of it — for more than 50 years. He and wife Sherry arrived in Worthington in 1970, when he was hired at the Worthington Junior High School.
“Roger Gruss was the principal at the time … and (superintendent) Shirl Held hired me,” Benton remembered. “He was one of the best administrators they ever had. What a gentleman.”
Benton taught at the junior high school until 1974 and, after an eight-year hiatus from teaching, he started at Minnesota West in August 1982.
Along the way, Benton has done plenty of performing as well as teaching. He played string bass in the house band for Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center’s “Corn Off the Cob” variety show for many years, and has been a long-time member of the Fulda Big Band. Many who have sat in Worthington’s Chautauqua Park on Wednesday summer nights may also know that Benton directed the “Amazing” Worthington City Band for 14 years.
Both Galen and Sherry have also participated in the bell choir at Worthington’s First United Methodist Church for 30 years, and Galen has performed as part of the Worthington Brass Band Quintet for more than 25 years.
And, he loves the opportunity to play an instrument he first learned in long ago, oftentimes in front of people he first met long ago.
“All these guys at that table (pointing gesture) today, I know,” Benton remarked after his Thursday show. “Arlo Mogck, George Bents, Bruce Lease, Martin Aaser … Russ Rickers — I’ve known those people for years. There are quite a few people from (his) church that live here, too.”
With each of those people comes the potential for a variety of music tastes. Benton said he aims to play a cross-section of music that includes country (he often includes Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” in a set), sacred and spiritual, polkas, waltzes, old standards and some big band (“like ‘String of Pearls’ by the Glenn Miller Band,” he added). He’ll even do a little rock ‘n roll, citing Bill Haley and the Comets’ famed 1950s hit “Rock Around the Clock” as a tune he’ll perform.
“I play old tunes from the early 1900s and through the ’50s and ’60s and even newer — today, I played ‘Islands in the Stream’ by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and that’s from 1983,” he said. “That’s a good tune.
“I ended today with ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ which is a song about eternal life, and the life we’re entering on the way to heaven,” he went on. “When I get done playing, people often want me to play it again.”
Benton gets other memorable feedback, too, as a result of the music he squeezes out on his $8,000 accordion that will also, thanks to presses of the right buttons, make sounds akin to a guitar, flute, cathedral organ and much more. Hearing the personal stories that relate to songs he performs is enjoyable, he said.
“I once played ‘Begin the Beguine’ and Ken Thompson (a long-time — and late — Worthington resident) told me afterwards, ‘That's the first tune I danced to with Helen (wife),” he explained. “And today I played ‘San Antonio Rose’ and a woman told me how it brought back memories. ‘My husband and I were down in San Antonio; this was in the early ’40s during World War II, and on every street corner you heard that song.’
“I read a devotion a few days ago that said, ‘God uses humor to lubricate our soul,’ Benton said. “Music does the same thing for me. It lubricates my soul.”