New Ulm loses musical elder statesman in Donald Wilfahrt
Died Oct. 8 at age of 96
NEW ULM — New Ulm lost one of its last great musicians from the big band era.
Donald Charles Wilfahrt died Friday, Oct. 8 after a brief COVID-19 illness at age 96.
Wilfahrt was well-known in the community for his musical talent. Wilfahrt was the longest-serving member in the New Ulm Municipal Band, having played with the band since 1945 when it was known as the Pioneer Band.
Wilfahrt played with several other bands in his lifetime, including the Original German Band. He was a founding member of the Original German Band along with Denis Warta.
“He was a great guy and a great musician,” Warta said.
Music ran in Wilfahrt’s family. His uncle was “Whoopie John”.
Wilfahrt began playing at a young age. In his lifetime he played several instruments. When he started in the Municipal Band he played the saxophone, but later switched to the oboe and later in life switched to the clarinet. Wilfahrt would later say the clarinet was his favorite.
Though he was 96 at the time of his death, it came as a surprise to some. Wilfahrt was still playing with the municipal band until the end. He played the clarinet during the HermannFest celebration in September.
New Ulm Municipal Band Director Don Jirak said Wilfahrt’s last performance was on Sept. 19 at the German Park Amphitheater. He had a chance to perform the New Ulm Anthem.
Jirak said he will most remember Wilfahrt’s pleasant personality.
“He was so easy to get along with and his dedication to the band was strong,” he said. “He wanted to be at all performances at all costs.”
Warta confirmed that Wilfahrt was extremely reliable, saying “If he said he was going to come to play, he came to play.”
Wilfahrt had no favorite song, but Jirak said he liked the German numbers. After playing one of the German songs he would say “That was a good one,” or “We liked that one.”
Fellow Municipal Band member Debbie Dubberly said Wilfahrt was the “friendliest man. He was always willing to help.”
It was common for people to ask Wilfahrt questions. Dubberly remembered he answered every question with patience and kindness.
Dubberly said Wilfahrt was a great musician and his death was a great loss for area music. Wilfahrt was one of the last great musicians of the big band and polka era. This was the type of music to put New Ulm on the map musical, and Wilfahrt’s death a wealth of musical knowledge is lost.
Jirak also praised Wilfahrt as a musician, saying he left behind a great legacy.
A private graveside service will be held in the New Ulm Catholic Cemetery. The New Ulm Area Comrades of Valor Honor Guard will be providing full military honors at the cemetery.