The ukulele has been a fixture throughout Princeton’s Roger Gale’s lifetime.
But not just the ukulele, rather music in general. Gale, 68, learned to play the ukulele at age 11 from his father, Waldo Emerson Gale, around a campfire.
The family’s musical history goes back yet another generation to Waldo’s father and Roger’s grandfather, Rolla Gale.
Rolla was a missionary with the Salvation Army from 1905 to 1916 and traveled around the Dakotas and Kansas on horseback, always carrying with him a Bible and a guitar, playing music for those who gathered around his message.
When Waldo was 4 years old, his parents brought him to Fergus Falls, where they homesteaded a piece of land and settled their family. Waldo was a man of many talents — an educator, avid reader and writer, outdoorsman, and “a walking encyclopedia,” as Roger put it — but one of his passions was just like his father’s before him: music.
Waldo learned to play guitar from his father and also added the ukulele to his rotation.
From 1934 to 1936, Waldo hosted a talk radio show on the Fergus Falls airwaves, riding his horse 2 miles to the station in the morning equipped with his guitar and again back home after work.
Sometimes on his show, Waldo would divert from talking and instead play live music, singing and playing guitar on air. The first song he ever played on air was “When You’re Smiling.”
From 1940 to 1943, Waldo served in World War II in the Army and then was transferred to the Navy, entertaining the troops with music whenever he had the chance, with a special affinity toward folk music.
Waldo married his wife, Verneil, in 1944 after the war and moved to Red Wing.
The Gale family vacations consisted of camping and sitting together around a fire, of course with music to entertain.
The relationship between Roger and his father wasn’t unlike many others; filled with love, Waldo taught Roger and his other four siblings how to take apart a bike and rebuild it and how to swim, tie knots and appreciate what nature has to offer. But among the greatest gifts Waldo passed on was his passion for music.
When Roger was 11, the Gale family was on vacation near Alexandria when Roger made a negative comment about camping vacations, which upset Waldo, Roger said.
The following day, Waldo took Roger into a music store in Alexandria and picked out a standard-size, 12-inch ukulele for Roger to play around the fire.
At first, Roger said he was tentative about playing music and living up to what his father and grandfather had been able to do with music, but once he started to practice, “I was hooked,” he said.
On the same camping trip, his father taught him how to play his first two songs: “Home on the Range” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”
When the family returned back to Red Wing after their vacation, Roger begged to learn more about the ukulele and how to play.
Before supper most nights, Roger would sing songs without the aid of his ukulele, and his father would tell him what chords to put with the lyrics.
“He could hear the chords even when they weren’t actually there,” Roger said.
At age 15, Roger stepped up to a baritone ukulele, which is 30 inches long and a better sound quality.
By age 16, Roger knew a catalog of about 100 songs and tried to make the jump to guitar, but it didn’t work out. Going from four strings to six was complicated, so Roger focused solely on the ukulele from then on.
To encourage his son’s musical endeavors, Waldo asked Roger who would entertain all the young girls on a winter night in school, and that’s exactly what Roger did. He entertained.
Much like his father entertained radio listeners and his fellow troops, Roger entertained people in high school and college through the musical groups he was involved in.
He starred as a lead singer and ukulele player in his Intervarsity Christian Fellowship group in college.
“They were some of the most special people I’ve ever met in my life,” he said.
Along with the organized groups he played with, Roger said his impromptu performances with John Denver’s band in Colorado and jam sessions in Mexico and Hawaii stand out to him.
The Gale family legacy of music didn’t stop with Roger. His son Peter is a skilled guitarist and Peter’s children — Eli, 7, and Nora, 5 — have also started to play the guitar.
Gale spent 34 years teaching third, fourth and fifth grades in the Princeton Public School District and now is a super-sub, subbing whenever he’s called on.
He always brings his ukulele along with him to inspire the next generation of musicians.
Today, Gale is involved musically with the Girl and Boy Scouts, various churches, Lions Club, assisted living centers and community education courses.