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At 90, Missouri shopkeeper still makes music his business

Friday, October 8, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

HANNIBAL — The customers in Albert Haug's music shop are as unique as the proprietor himself.

There's a seemingly constant stream of folks looking for used pianos, benches, guitar strings, harmonicas and more. Customers want to trade in their old instruments for new ones, musicians need new guitar strings, and there's even a resourceful man hoping to rig a guitar to fit the abilities of a stroke patient.

They, in turn, stop by the shop in the six hundred block of Broadway in Hannibal, a familiar setting for those in the music genre. They talk. They look through the parts manuals. They browse the cramped quarters in search of vintage treasures. They ask questions, and get answers, from the shop owner who has evolved into the voice of expertise.

That voice belongs to a 90-year-old who mans the shop alone six days a week, beginning at 9:30 a.m. He eats a lunch he brought from home, right there at his desk near the sales counter. "I'll stay as long as you want me to," he tells a phone customer. "I wish I had some of this business when (late wife) Nettie and I didn't have a dime," he lamented. "Now I have business fall in my lap."

Another call, this one from the veterans home in Quincy, Ill. They want to trade an old digital keyboard for a new model. "I'll fix up the old one and resell it," Haug said, noting, "If I'm not working on a piano, I'm not happy."

He has stories about how opening a store was his wife's idea, and how she ran the business while he focused on music. Now he's taking care of business by himself, but not by choice. He lost his wife of 63 years twice — claimed first by Alzheimer's Disease, and ultimately by physical death in 2008. He'd rather be at the store these days, interacting with customers, than at home alone.

The tears come easily when he speaks of her — "She was the sweetest person I ever knew," he said, "I miss her more every day. They say it gets better, but it doesn't. I can't tell you how it hurts."

But when a customer comes through his door, looking for a harmonica, Haug shifts from sentimental to shop keeper.

"There's the Blues Band for $3 — you can buy it on TV for $9.99," he told his customer, smiling. There's the Big River, "They're a pretty good harp." The Marine Band brand has a wood component, and then there's the Blues Harp. Most of the better brands are priced about the same, around $25. "On payday I'll probably stop in," the man said before heading out the door.

Albert admits that he lost 25 pounds after his wife died, and hasn't been able to put on any weight since. And it's not for a lack of trying, he said.

He loves sweets, and pointed to a plate of brownies brought in that morning by a grateful customer. He likes milkshakes at night, and enjoys fresh produce he grows in the garden behind his house.

"I'm eating more than an average person eats. I eat good stuff, broccoli every day and spinach."

He has always fed the whole neighborhood with tomatoes, even though this year was the poorest year for tomatoes that he's seen. He has hazel nut bushes, a cherry tree and an apple tree in the backyard of the house he shared with his wife during most of the 63 years they were married. "I love to see things grow."

"I'll pick a pepper tonight, clean it and eat it," he said.

Albert has been a musician for as long as he can remember. As a child he played the accordion, and as a young married man he gave accordion lessons from his home.

"We had so many students, we almost lost our minds," he said.

Students came from Shelbina and Shelbyville, Bowling Green, St. Louis and all around Hannibal.

"We even gave lessons on Sunday afternoons. We had a little band at one time — six, seven or eight of us — and we played in the city park."

One day, "My wife and I were drinking coffee in our kitchen, and she said, 'We don't have any family life anymore.'" That's when the idea for a downtown music store came into play. "Somehow or another we got into the piano and organ business."

He doesn't want to sound like he's bragging, but he can play music both by notes and by ear.

"I have a remarkable memory for songs," he said. "I remember every note and the original key. I know hundreds of songs." But he gave up playing the piano and organ when his wife died. He said the music just went out of him.

He was the youngest of three boys born to his parents, and was raised on Grand Avenue. His dad worked for Duffey-Trowbridge Stove Co., which closed down in 1940. His dad would ultimately die at the age of 51 of lung disease, Albert said, with the suspected cause: breathing sand dust in the foundry.

"They didn't wear masks," Albert said. Sometimes his father would forget his lunch, and Albert would be asked to deliver it to him. "I couldn't breathe in there" because of the dust.

When Albert was 10, his father helped a contractor build a three-bedroom brick house at 720 Grand, which is directly across from the entrance to Douglass Community Services. It's still a good house, he said, and is occupied by a family member.

He served with the infantry in the Philippine Islands during World War II. "It was the most miserable time of my life," he said. "I was a damned fool — I thought I wanted to fight for my country." At war's end, he returned to Hannibal and lived with his parents for a few months until he married Nettie. They have two sons — one lives in the Seattle area and the other's home is based in Colorado.

They come to see him from time to time, but he's not planning any return visits — at least for now. "I'm not going anyplace, not at my age."

On the wall of his store is a framed newspaper clipping that has almost faded to nothing with age.

It's the story of his wife, Nettie, then 12 years old, when she fell from Lover's Leap in 1937. With animation, Albert retells the story.

Nettie Jane Ahlers was one of 37 Girl Scouts participating in an outing on Lover's Leap in April 1937. There was a little ledge below the main rock that extended out from the bluff.

Mary Holman (Stillwell), Mary V. Hickman (Plowman), and Nettie Jane were climbing on that little ledge when Nettie slipped. Mary V. caught Nettie's belt, but it pulled off from her coat. Nettie fell 60 to 80 feet, hit a slope and tumbled almost to River Road.

Joe Canote was a Burlington Railroad employee and saw Nettie fall. Joe pulled her from a small tree.

The lock and dam was under construction at Saverton, and a big flat bed truck was passing by. Joe got the truck driver to drive them to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Joe carried her up to the third floor.

Dr. Franka was called in. There was a twig jammed up her nose, and Dr. Franka yanked it out.

Nettie never lost consciousness. She had big cuts on her head and hip, and she carried those scars throughout her lifetime.


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