HAMMOND — After seven decades of sharing his musical talents with listeners and students, Florian Bolsega — Mr. B, as he is called — isn't changing his tune. He's just playing it for free these days and offering music lessons at the local library.
Bolsega, 88, grew up in East Chicago, one of seven musical children of Polish immigrant parents. He said he was in the sixth grade when he first noticed his interest in music. Apparently some of his skill was acquired through osmosis watching and listening to his older brothers playing the sax and clarinet.
He was home ill one day and pulled his brother's sax from under the bed and began playing it. His mother came in and caught him, and Bolsega said he worried he might be in trouble. Instead, his mother told him, whatever he was doing, to keep it up.
He said his father played the squeeze box and his four brothers and two sisters could have formed their own horn section on various instruments, and, in fact, they often spent evenings at home playing music together, especially polkas, with Florian playing harmony.
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While a student at East Chicago Washington High School, he was named bandleader by the school's band director. He helped direct rehearsals and was in charge of the band during weekend performances at football and basketball games so the director could take the time off to perform with Kay Kyser's band.
After a full day at school, Bolsega said he put in an eight-hour shift at Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube mill. After graduation in 1946, the schedule was somewhat reversed as he worked his mill shift then drove to the Metropolitan School of Music in Chicago.
After about three years at the music school, the Korean War was heating up and Bolsega figured he'd be drafted, so he arranged to audition for the famous Fifth Army Band at Fort Sheridan, located just north of Chicago. The audition went well and he was told there would be no problem getting into the band after he finished his six weeks of basic training.
The draft came and the six weeks was extended to eight, then 10, then 12, and when it was to go to 16, he went to his commander and said he was drafted to be in the band. The officer told him he was in the Army now, and Bolsega thought his band duty was gone. Giving it one more try the next day, he told the officer, if he wouldn't help him, Bolsega would get someone who could.
When the officer demanded to know who Bolsega had in mind, he said his state senator, although Bolsega said he didn't even know who the senator was. He was assigned to the band.
While a member of the Ft. Sheridan Fifth Army Band, he performed in a number of special events and for dignitaries, at the state fairs in Illinois and Wisconsin and marched with the band in parades in Chicago. He also organized a bunch of the band members into a band playing the music of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and the other Big Band Era favorites.
The closest he came to combat duty apparently was on a bus ride with the band to a Wisconsin appearance when the commanding officer asked for volunteers to go to Korea. Bolsega was the only one to put up his hand. The commander asked him twice if he really meant to volunteer, then assigned him overseas — to Germany, where he continued his musical tour of duty and got in a little sightseeing on weekends and leaves, including a trip to Italy and an audience with Pope Pius XII.
He mustered out of the Army in 1953, and a year or so later he and a couple of his brothers opened a music store in East Chicago. The brothers handled the retail end and Florian ran the music studio. The brothers opened a second store about a year later in Hammond and left Florian in charge of the East Chicago location.
"We were successful with the studio, but not the retail," Bolsega said.
Eventually, he bought a house and began giving music lessons out of his home and at the homes of his students. Thousands of students later, he's still giving lessons. About 10 years ago he went to the Hammond Public Library and offered to give lessons for free. He said a couple of students have been with him ever since.
"I teach piano," he said. "It's mind training first and then music. Then they learn theory and then keyboard. The students' habits are not as disciplined as when I was a kid. It's a challenge to get the kids to do the lessons because they are free rather than the ones who were paying for it.
"I tell them I'm not a magician, I'm a musician. Life has been good to me and now I can give something back. It's about learning how to grow. If I can project that to the future of music, that's my obligation."
Library Director Rene Greenleaf said Bolsega began offering "Welcome to the World of Music" at the Howard branch, moving to the main library after the Howard branch was closed several years ago. Greenleaf said the program is a joy for both Bolsega and the students.
"You can see in his face that he loves what he does," Greenleaf said. "And the kids and adults love it. If I sat in on a session, I would stay forever because of the joy he exuberates. I've asked him a couple of musical questions, and he's a fantastic patron. He's an avid reader and helps us in promoting the resources in the library.
"You don't find a lot of people who take an interest in the community like he's doing free of charge, just sharing their gifts," she said. "If more would do that, it would lend more credence to why people are here and what we can do together to help the community grow."