Zimmerman looks back on 76 years of musical fun

by Kate Shunney

Paul Zimmerman swears he isn’t that good at playing the tuba. He’s been playing it for more than 75 years. Mostly for fun, he says.

For 40 years of his musical hobby, Zimmerman hefted the large brass instrument onto vans, into cars, up on parade floats and around his shoulder as a member of the Ali Ghan Shrine Band.

Paul Zimmerman and one of his tubas.

The band, based out of the Cumberland shrine, has played at all sorts of public events – July 4th celebrations, fall festivals, Memorial Day commemorations and Veteran’s Day ceremonies. Zimmerman said the group played in the Mummer’s parade in Hagerstown, the Sharpsburg Memorial Day parade and Oakland’s Autumn Glory festival. Sometimes the band made smaller appearances at nursing homes or to play for kids.

“It’s been fun being in the band. When I first started, there were 35 to 40 members. We’re down to about 14 members now,” said Zimmerman.

“We still make good noise. I’m not sure about music,” he joked.

Mostly, the band plays patriotic songs, marches and Big Band era songs. Around the holidays, they’ve set up alongside Salvation Army volunteers collecting donations at their Christmas kettles around Cumberland. That could draw a crowd, he said.

In May, Zimmerman officially retired from the band. Nearing 90, he said he sometimes has trouble getting the breath he needs to play the more demanding parts of some songs. Even for a sturdy man like Zimmerman, the tuba is a hefty instrument. He decided it was time to let the band play on without him.

The Ali Ghan Shrine Band didn’t let Zimmerman’s years of service pass without notice.

Members told him to come to the Cumberland temple on May 18 for a birthday party for the band director. He didn’t think anything of it. Around 70 people showed up for this one and Zimmerman sat with the band. About halfway through the dinner, he noticed that one of his daughters and his granddaughter had arrived. The shrine leader gave a speech.

“He went on about an illustrious person who had 40 years in the band,” said Zimmerman.

It was then that he realized the dinner was for him.

Shrine officials presented him with certificates of appreciation from Maryland governor Larry Hogan, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin and West Virginia governor Jim Justice. Several mentioned that he had taken more than 100 trips transporting area kids to the Shriner’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

Zimmerman was presented with an American flag that flew over the West Virginia State Capitol, and the band gave him a sizable trophy they had won at the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Shrine convention in Virginia Beach. Someone in the band glued a medallion of a tuba onto the top in his honor.

All in all, Zimmerman was pretty surprised. He said it took him until the early hours of the next morning to fall asleep after all the attention.

“I’ve been so fortunate playing with the Shrine band for many, many years,” he said.

For him, the monthly band practice and appearances were about having fun, and bringing music to people to enjoy.

It was a hobby he fit in between a 30-year career as a mailman in Berkeley Springs and family life. Zimmerman married Madeline O’Rourke in 1949 and they remained married until she passed away in 2008. They had two daughters, Barbara Zimmerman and Susan Clark, who they raised right in town.

Zimmerman made time to play in a number of bands over the years.

He was a member of the Tri-State Civic Band until this year, when he gave it up. Former Hancock mayor and veterinarian Dan Murphy had organized the group of local amateur musicians.

Zimmerman had been in another local band put together by Jim Clark. Clark called Zimmerman and Bob Ditto and asked if there were interested in joining.

“If you come, I’ll have a tuba for you,” he told Zimmerman.

The Ali Ghan Shrine band playing in Virginia Beach.

The group played in the park and at the Catholic Church a few times, he recalled.

“Then a couple guys came from the Ali Ghan shrine and asked me and Ditto to go play in their band,” said Zimmerman.

Most of the Shrine band members had been members of their high school and military bands, Zimmerman included.

He started playing the tuba in the sixth grade at Old Dominion Academy in Berkeley Springs. By the time he got to eighth grade, he was able to join the Morgan County High School Band – a joint band of Paw Paw and Berkeley Springs student musicians.

“Jim Webb and I both played tuba,” said Zimmerman. So did Richard Butler, Bob Ditto and Clyde Golden – young men he would play with all through high school. He and Ditto would play alongside each other for much longer.

Zimmerman said he always encourages young people to play an instrument and join a band, if they have a chance.

“You can play football. You can play baseball. In a few years, it’s over. But here I am – I’ve been playing since 1942,” he said.

After high school, a bunch of the local musicians kept at it. Zimmerman remembers playing in a small Hancock band in 1949 that was started by band leader Joe Cox, a salesman for J.W. Mars Wholesalers. The band played dances at the fire hall in Hancock. It was during Hancock’s heyday, when the streets were crowded on a weekend and you could hardly get up the sidewalk, said Zimmerman.

“Then the Korean War came and a lot of us went to war,” he said.

“If I’m remembering right, we gave the instruments we had to the Warfordsburg high school so they could set up a band,” said Zimmerman.

While he isn’t an official member of any band now, Zimmerman still has two tubas that are ready to play. One is especially shiny, having gotten a new coat of brass after being knocked off the top of a van in a parking garage.

Zimmerman feels fortunate to have played so long. He makes it sound like playing music to thousands of people over four decades was just part of a lucky life.

“It’s always been fun,” he says.

Paul Zimmerman, center, holds a band trophy at his retirement party, thrown by the Ali Ghan Shrine Band on May 18, 2018.