FORT WAYNE – As a radio personality, entertainer, musician and storyteller, Sam DeVincent lived much of his life behind a microphone and his ever-present accordion.
Born in Chicago, he and his wife, Nancy, arrived in Fort Wayne in 1945 when he joined the staff at WOWO – first with the on-air musical group Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers, then, beginning in 1960, as the station's music director. He stayed in that position until he retired in 1983.
His Dec. 1, 1997, obituary in The Journal Gazette, after he died at the age of 79, mentioned that he once said, “I knew instinctively that music was going to be my life, from the time I was a kid.”
Those who survived him were Nancy, who died nearly three years ago, three children and four grandchildren.
He also left behind a legacy that will endure for generations beyond his grandchildren and probably theirs. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington will see to that.
Sam was around the age of 10 when he began to acquire pieces of sheet music and song books. Not only was he enthralled with the music, he was particularly drawn to their covers and colorful artwork. Twenty sets of sheet music became 40, and a few stacks inside his Chicago home became many.
As he grew, so did the collection. As the family multiplied, so did the collection. Vacations with Nancy and the kids turned into back road adventures to tiny music shops with the hope of finding a jewel among the rubble. He sifted through antiques stores, scoured garage sales, crawled into dusty attics. He bought and he traded.
Hearing of Sam's hobby through his “Little Red Barn” segment, WOWO's 50,000-watt daily listeners from the Midwest to the East Coast would send sheet music to the station, addressed to Sam DeVincent.
Piece-by-piece, year-by-year, decade after decade, DeVincent's collection grew to about 130,000 pieces. And in March 1988, at the suggestion of John Edward Hasse, who used the collection to research his doctoral dissertation, three moving vans arrived at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where the collection now resides beneath the title “Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated Sheet Music.”
“We wanted to give the care, the love, the home it so much deserved,” says Hasse, who, as a graduate student at Indiana University, contacted DeVincent after hearing about his extensive collection. “We had become friends. He started off as a wonderful source of information, and we became friends very quickly. He and Nancy were just wonderful people. They were so welcoming and warm to me.”
As only fate would have it, Hasse was given a job at the Smithsonian, where he became curator for the Division of Culture and the Arts, which means he oversees the care and well-being of DeVincent's lifelong passion.
Before the collection became the property of the Smithsonian, its residence was in DeVincent's home in the Trier Ridge Park housing addition on the city's southeast side. There were boxes upon boxes upon boxes.
“Our house was always filled with sheet music,” says the DeVincents' daughter, Lori Deal, 51. “My dad had it in every room. He had it stacked in the living room. He had it down the hallway. He had his own little office of it. And the whole, entire two-car garage was filled with it. We were always going to someone's house or a church, or someone would contact him and say, ‘We've got some sheet music, Sam, if you'd like to come look at it.' And he would go everywhere looking for this stuff. My mom and I would sit in the car and he would go into houses and he'd go visit people.”
Except for the kids' rooms, the sheet music was everywhere.
In the middle of the night when Nancy got up to go to the bathroom, she broke her toe on a box of Sam's collection that was in the hall.
“Everybody in the family picked on him a lot,” Lori says. “It was like a joke with the obsession thing. I don't think he ever looked at it that way. He loved it.
“But I've got to give him credit. I'm really impressed with the way he handled himself with it. He was so organized. And I can remember when he went into the Smithsonian and got the Smithson Award after (the collection) had been there a couple years. This was a room full of the elite of the elite. And he got up there with my mom, and they started doing some of their stage show stuff from their radio days, and the whole place was just roaring. It was so neat to see people like that appreciating their comedy. It was priceless. I'm so proud to be his daughter.”
More than music
Smithsonian volunteer Cooby Greenway has documented, arranged and processed the collection almost from its arrival. “It's been about 25 years,” she says.
While the entire collection is not on public display, pieces of it complement other exhibits.
If there is a baseball exhibit, Greenway says, there might be a piece of DeVincent's sheet music on display; or with automobiles; or with military history. If the sheet music can assist to complement a certain era, it could be on display.
“This is a research collection,” Greenway says of the entire body of work, which may be seen by request. “Its primary purpose – why the Smithsonian wanted it – is for the covers, not for the music. It was the illustrations. It's used a lot for the music, but I didn't understand about the covers until I'd been working on it for a while.”
Many of the music covers and illustrations, Greenway says, reflect the mood and the thinking of the country at the time of the music's publication.
Former WOWO on-air personality Chris Roberts, who began working with DeVincent in 1973, recalls conversations he had with him about the covers.
“Sam told me he was really a fan of not only the music, but the lithography,” Roberts says. “He took great pride in showing me these things over the years, many times. He'd say, ‘Come here. I want to show you what I bought in Kentucky,' or, ‘I want to show you what I bought at a little record store, or music store, in Chicago.' … And he would say, ‘Just look at the lithography on that, and stop and think when that was done in the 1800s and how clear and crisp and colorful those colors are.' That's what really entertained him – not only the sheet music itself, but the way it was published.”
There are rare pieces within the collection, perhaps most notably “Marie from Sunny Italy,” written by 19-year-old Irving Berlin in 1907. And there is a baseball-themed song, “Live Oak Polka” published in 1863. “The last I looked,” Greenway says of the polka sheet music, “it was worth about $5,000. … It has to be insured.”
What is the worth of the entire collection? “I wouldn't have the foggiest,” Greenway says.
So Sam is at rest now, as is Nancy, who Roberts recalled would roll her eyes whenever her husband claimed another find. “It's like, ‘This is what Sam does,' ” Roberts interpreted Nancy's expression.
After seeing the collection, of sifting through the ragtime pieces that helped him land his doctorate, after dining with Sam and Nancy and staying in their home, Hasse, still a student at IU, said he recognized the greatness of Sam DeVincent's work.
“I made a vow to myself and made it a goal to some day help this collection find a great, permanent, loving home,” Hasse says. “At that point, in 1978, I had not a clue I'd work at the Smithsonian. I had hoped to be a university professor. But when I got here in 1984, I realized the Smithsonian would be a favorite place for this collection.”