Two men with prominent Minnesota names — Robert Dayton and Stuart MacPhail — died this month. Only one got the public attention he deserved.

Stuart MacPhail, 97, was the surviving son of William S. MacPhail, founder of what is now MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Stuart was a gracious, sometimes flinty gentleman who outlived two wives, played better golf in his 80s than friends in their 60s, and was proud of his own and his family’s role in developing the MacPhail School of Music.

He fondly recalled family gatherings when each member had to perform something, if only a reading. Stuart said he was not as musically gifted as his violinist father, who played with the Minneapolis Symphony, or his pianist mother, who often accompanied her husband to bolster family income. Stuart did play clarinet in a dance band and, in his 90s, he sang in a chorus led by a MacPhail faculty member at a seniors’ residence in Bloomington. He served as president and a longtime member of the school’s board, even when he pursued a career in the steel business.

He also served as a flight navigator during World War II. During a flight over the Pacific one Christmas Day, Stuart was able to call up a live radio broadcast of a concert by a well-known Minneapolis men’s chorus called the Apollo Club, led by his father half a world away.

The MacPhail School took root in 1907 as a family-owned business offering violin lessons. It once conferred degrees and offered everything from instrumental, vocal and dance training to piano tuning and baton twirling. It took advantage of government educational aid for returning veterans of World Wars I and II. In 1966, it became part of the University of Minnesota, only to re-emerge in 1994 as an independent nonprofit enterprise.

More recently, it has expanded from a single building to partnerships with Minnesota schools and senior residences. It offers help through music therapy. Its students have included thousands of professional and amateur performers, teachers, appreciative audience members, at least one Miss America, a famous bandleader (Lawrence Welk) and one player of the bells atop Minneapolis City Hall.

While Dayton’s has disappeared as the name of local department stores, the MacPhail name endures because the school’s leaders nimbly changed with the times, competing effectively with rivals to tap Minnesotans’ passion for the arts — especially music.

Curiously, William S. MacPhail learned the retail business at Goodfellow’s in Minneapolis — the forerunner of Dayton’s. But today, his vision, ambition and name survive. Stuart MacPhail was an important part of that legacy.

 

Dan Wascoe, a retired Star Tribune reporter, is a musician and bell player.