Helen Day (1923 - 2021)
Helen Irene Day Schuster was a lifelong professional musician whose career spanned nearly eighty years! Helen was born in 1923 to a poor family in the rural community of South Whitley Indiana. Helen always loved music but her family had no means to acquire an instrument. One day, Helen’s domestic worker mom asked a wealthy employer if she could have a clarinet he'd thrown in the trash. She hoped to give it to her
young daughter who dreamt of playing in the high school band one day. The employer said yes.
By high school, Helen’s talent was apparent. Her band director, Mr. Ronald Melton, provided encouragement, guidance, and lessons. When Helen’s interest expanded to the saxophone, he lent her the school horn. Helen fell in love. The next year, with the help of Helen’s dear aunt who was working at the Conn instrument factory, Mr. Melton helped Helen select her own sax – and a year later, a better clarinet. In doing so he opened a world of possibilities for Helen.
Helen’s lifelong commitment to music was nothing short of remarkable. In 1942, at age 19, Helen launched an 11-year career with All-Girl Big Bands. Helen quickly became sought after as a lead alto and tenor sax player who doubled on clarinet, baritone and soprano sax, flute, piccolo, piano, and in a pinch, drums. For the next decade she played in ballrooms, theaters, and dance clubs in almost every state. In 1952 she and three other women musicians formed their own band, The Quadettes.
Although Helen retired from the road in 1953, she never retired from music! For 70 more years Helen played with numerous Big Bands, jazz bands, concert bands, and small combos in Illinois and Florida. By the 1990s Helen (now in her 70s) was playing dozens of performances each year. Although her performance scheduled slowed down in her 90s, Helen was a faithful member of her community band and informal combos. And, she kept up her daily practice routine until she passed on at age 98, “to keep in shape for my next gig”. Helen passed away in 2021.
The Whitko Jr./Sr. High School Band would like to thank Mrs. Laura Gilbert, daughter of Helen Day, for sharing this rich musical history that has its roots right here in South Whitley. We would also like to thank both her and Helen for her generous donation to our program, helping the young musicians of today reach the musical excellence that Helen strived for with each and every performance in her long, storied career!