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Frederick G. Polkey

, Star Tribune

Obituary: Fred Polkey, lifelong Northeaster who mastered accordion

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH
  • Star Tribune
  • October 31, 2012 - 9:29 PM

From great heights in South America to the Midwest music mecca that is Branson, Mo., and anywhere else there might be an audience, Fred Polkey loved to break out in song.

Polkey lived nearly all of his 96 years in the same home in northeast Minneapolis and surrounded himself and his family with music as a master accordionist and teacher, church choir director and singer.

Polkey died Oct. 25 after a bout with pneumonia over the summer.

"I'm going to carry on my father's legacy of breaking out in song wherever I am," said Polkey's daughter Suzanne Polkey-Berg, who sang at her father's funeral less than three blocks from the family home.

Polkey was Northeast through and through. He lived in the same house on NE. 4th Street from the day he was born until just short of his final days, when he moved to an assisted-living residence.

He graduated from Edison High School and married his lifelong sweetheart, Burnette, in 1941 at Holy Cross Church, where he was eulogized Tuesday. He had directed the church's 48-member choir for 40 years and guided an ensemble of elderly women who sang in Polish every Sunday at 7 a.m. mass.

The Polkey home was filled with the strains of the accordion, singing and the hustle and bustle of four children born over a 12-year span.

"Dad gave me lessons on the accordion in about 1958," said son Fred Polkey Jr. "My mother would say you'd better practice before you go out because your father will be home soon," noting that his parents' enforcement led to him winning several competitions as a youngster.

Polkey-Berg teamed with her father on the singing side of things starting at age 5. They were part of the Aquatennials' roving unit, performing at hospitals and in prisons.

While just starting out and working at the Traficante music school on Central Avenue NE., Polkey helped a future television legend, Lawrence Welk, with his accordion needs, Polkey-Berg said.

How big was the accordion in Minneapolis? In 1941, more than 350 young accordionists -- instructor Polkey nattily attired in a suit and tie -- were assembled at Roosevelt High School for a show. Despite the roomy auditorium and admission being charged at the door, 400-plus would-be patrons had to be turned away.

Polkey's passion for music took him from performing with the Three Sharps early on, to the Twin Cities Chorale Group, to chairing the Aquatennial accordion and organ competition, to his musical leadership duties at church.

During Fred and Burnette's travels to dozens of countries, Polkey-Berg said, her father was always on the lookout for a spontaneous opportunity to entertain whoever happened to be around.

While on a train in the Andes Mountains, she recalled, her father sang the timeless hymns "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art."

The other passengers "smiled with no teeth, and he entertained them," even though they couldn't understand a word, Polkey-Berg said.

In 2008, Polkey went to Branson to see the Lennon Sisters at the Lawrence Welk Theatre. After the show, Polkey found his way to them and offered, "I would like to sing for you," Polkey-Berg recalls her dad saying.

Polkey sang "O, Holy Night" and the Lennon Sisters "harmonized with him. It was kind of a full-circle thing for him to meet the Lennon Sisters."

When not behind the accordion or in full-throated song, Polkey worked as a tool and die maker at General Mills for 24 years and as president of the General Mills Credit Union. At age 50, he joined Pennzoil Co. in sales, retiring in the early 1990s.

Fred Polkey Sr. was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years. Along with his son and daughter Polkey-Berg, he is survived by daughters Sharon Spencer and Sylvia Polkey Walsh.

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