Leslie Earl Kessinger played the harmonica by ear.
He played by heart.
When he was in the fourth grade back in the 1920s, he played the harmonica for the other kids in his class. The teacher caught him one day and took it away.
He serenaded his sweetheart with songs. She became his wife. He filled their home with harmonica music, delighting their kids with tune after tune. And their grandkids.
He died five years ago and so did his music, except for recordings his grown children keep. Recently, they found a way to honor him while keeping his harmonica music alive for a new generation. They created The Leslie Earl Kessinger Memorial Service Learning Fund at the University of Nebraska Foundation.
The fund provides harmonicas for Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Middle School students in the seventh-grade “Music Exploration” class. The fund pays for harmonica books and a private harmonica instructor. The project is in collaboration with UNO’s Service Learning Academy.
The seventh-graders get to keep the harmonicas. They will play for assisted-living homes around Omaha while UNO gerontology students interview residents about their lives.
On Oct. 13 at Lewis and Clark, the seventh-graders gave their first harmonica concert. They played “Hot Cross Buns” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Their finale was “Ramona,” an old jazz tune that was Leslie Earl’s favorite – and the one he used to play when he serenaded his wife of 62 years.
The private harmonica instructor provided by the fund is recent UNO graduate Danny Sabra, who actually was friends with Leslie Earl. They played together in harmonica clubs around Omaha. Danny played at Leslie Earl’s funeral.
Several of Leslie Earl’s children attended the concert. By the end, they had tears in their eyes.
“We just thought my dad will love it if, maybe, some young people will pick up this instrument again and just fall in love with it and go with it,” Ann Stergiou said. “My mother passed away about two years ago. So they are both together now.
“And I’m sure he’s up in heaven serenading her.”
A memorial fund connected to a loved one’s passion is a great way to honor that person. If you’d like to learn how to set one up, call the foundation toll-free at 800-432-3216. If you’d like to help with the Leslie Earl Kessinger Memorial Service Learning Fund at UNO, contact Lori Byrne at 402-502-4920.