ASHLAND – A little polka music through the window was just the right medicine for a renowned band leader recuperating from surgery and isolated by the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday afternoon, Kevin Koopmann and his musical partner for the day, accordion player Jacob Vyhlidal, played a polka concert for Dean Hansen.
The Ithaca man was at Azria Health Ashland (formerly called the Ashland Care Center) as he recovered from surgery to repair a broken arm.
Hansen has been playing the accordion since the age of 8. He joined his first band 10 years later in 1952 and has been playing music ever since. He was with the Ernie Kucera Orchestra, dubbed the “No. 1 Nebraska Polka Band,” for eight years before starting his own band, Dean Hansen and his Orchestra. The seven-piece group included sons Murray and Lonny and daughter Marla.
Koopmann credits Hansen with giving a tuba-playing teenager his start in the music business in 1980. As a sophomore, Hansen saw Koopmann playing in a polka trio at the King’s Ballroom in Norfolk. He asked the young musician to sit in with his group.
“It was my first taste of really quality players and reading music,” Koopmann recalled.
He learned from the elder musician’s work ethic and desire for precision.
“He wants music done well to the best of its ability,” said Koopmann.
Koopmann would sub for players in Hansen’s band over the years, and later joined groups like the Mark Vyhlidal Orchestra. He went on to take over the Duffy Belorad Orchestra.
Hansen and Koopmann were not only fellow musicians, but also fellow farmers. Hansen farms near Ithaca, while Koopmann’s rural home is near Raymond Central High School.
When Koopmann learned his mentor was laid up, he wanted to pay him back with a little polka music. Hansen’s stay at Azria Health coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in isolation for the outgoing musician. So Koopmann thought music would be a welcome addition to an otherwise dreary situation.
“I didn’t want him to think he was forgotten,” Koopmann said.
Koopmann and Vyhlidal sat outside Hansen’s window and played about eight tunes, all songs that Hansen had recorded over the years. The music brought joy to the hall of famer as he swayed in time to the songs.
“All the tunes Jacob played on the accordion are tunes he played on the CDs he made,” said Hansen’s daughter, Marla Janak.
Occasionally, Hansen would flash a thumbs up and yell out “Heidi Ho!” or “Yes! Yes!” These are some of the trademark phrases the old band leader would use during performances, Koopmann said.
“There were times when he was himself,” he added.
Hansen shed a few tears as well.
“It was pretty special for him,” Janak said.
Hansen has been at Azria Health since March 13. He fell at home on March 7 and broke his arm, which needed surgery to mend. He cannot put any weight on the arm for two months, and as a result needs skilled nursing care, Janak said.
To pass the time, Hansen listens to recorded polka music. But the live concert was a real antidote to the challenge of healing and the pain of separation from his family.
“He was just thrilled to death,” Janak said.
Koopmann was thrilled to have the opportunity to play for his old friend, even if it was in a unique way.
“I’ve done a lot of goofy things in my life,” Koopmann said. “This was probably the first time I’ve played through a window.”
Koopmann posted videos of the event on social media and was inundated with hundreds of comments.
“I’m shocked,” he said.