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I don't ever want to give up'

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

By Bob Shryock


Ralph Miller, 87, is the sole surviving member of the Original Hobo Band.
The band celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006

Staff photo by Jonathan Wells

They were inseparable friends from the day they met as students at Pitman High School more than 70 years ago, their lives eternally linked by their common love for playing music and the rag-tag, but formidable, Original Hobo Band Inc. of Pitman that became a major cornerstone of their lives.

So when John Pedicord died recently and his beloved band performed at his funeral, fellow original Hobo Ralph Miller tearfully played trumpet in tribute to his friend. And for Miller, no march could have been more appropriate: "Old Comrades."

Pedicord and Miller, both 87, born four months apart, were the last two original Hobos. Now Miller is the last in a world-traveled organization that celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006.

Although he is pushed in a wheelchair by a good friend on parade routes, Miller remains a Hobo fixture. He doesn't miss Thursday night practices. He still answers the call for parades and concerts. His heart always will be with them.

"I'm thrilled I've lasted this long," says Miller, who began learning trumpet from his brother Bill at the age of 8, "and I don't ever want to give it up."

Miller and Pedicord were graduates of the PHS Class of 1938. Both played in the high school band and orchestra -- Miller trumpet, Pedicord clarinet and saxophone. As young adults, John opened an ice cream parlor next to the Broadway Theatre, while Ralph worked across the street at a produce market. When their businesses closed on Saturday nights, they hung out together.

Pedicord, Miller and several of their musically-inclined classmates formed The Tall Cedars of Lebanon-sponsored "Cedar Chips Band" after graduation. They wore green and white uniforms and practiced all over town -- even in an empty jail cell at the police station.

Ralph Miller and John Pedicord helped form The Cedar Chips Band
after graduating from Pitman High School in 1938.

Photo special to the Times

The band thrived until many of its members went off to fight in World War II. When they returned in 1946, most wanted to resume playing but didn't fit into their old uniforms.

When asked to perform in Paulsboro and Mullica Hill Halloween parades the same day as the Pitman Community Band, they agreed to appear in unconventional hobo attire.

A spectator in Paulsboro is reported to have said, "Here comes a bunch of bums."

Bandsman Clint Carter is credited with anointing the band the "Hobos." Pedicord, Miller, Bob McLeish and George Volk started the Hobo Band.

The band bought land in a peach orchard on Lambs Road in Pitman in 1952, built a practice facility it still uses today, and harvested peaches they sold at Cowtown to raise funds to support the band.

They've performed throughout the Delaware Valley and East Coast, traveled twice to Europe (1970, 1974) for international competition, and captured numerous prizes for musicianship and showmanship.

For just about every step of the way, Pedicord and Miller were there. One of the years the Hobos traveled to Europe, they were roommates.

"John's death makes me the last of the originals," Miller says. "I don't like it, but that's how it ended up. We miss him being here, that's for sure. The last year, he wasn't able to be as active. John was an ace of a man and a fine musician whose best instrument was the clarinet. He also could take a piece of music we knew and rewrite it for the band."

Miller admits "no one" expected the Hobos to be as successful and widely popular as they've become and few believed they'd still be entertaining crowds at parades and concerts after 61 years. But he knows the band's colorful attire doesn't detract from the undisputed quality of their musicianship.

"We've had a lot of excellent musicians and we've always had a lot of young people coming up," Miller says.

And Miller has survived the changing of the guard for 61 years with no intention of retiring.

"I still play and I love it," he says. "If I didn't have this, I don't know what I'd do."

He can't march because of recurring chest pains so Judy Ryder, wife of fellow bandsman Henry Ryder, has been pushing him along the parades routes the last three years. "A fabulous person," the appreciative Miller says.

The Millers visited family in Florida recently, meaning Ralph had to miss a rehearsal and a Woodstown event. He was delighted to learn the Woodstown appearance had to be rescheduled because of bad weather -- that way, he'd make it.

Miller has his favorite Hobo Band memories.

The band's two trips to Europe were special. One year they played in the cemetery where Gen. Patton is buried.

In 1960, after the band marched in the Vineland Halloween parade, director Bob McCleish talked to a newcomer he hadn't met. Turns out, the new trumpet player didn't actually play.

"When the newcomer removed her hat, Bob saw it was the girlfriend (Joan Miller, no relation) of a band member and had her hair tucked up under her hat," Ralph says. "Bob wasn't too happy about it. She became the first woman to ever play with the Hobos."

In fact, Miller says, woman weren't officially welcomed to the fold until 30 years later in 1990.

Miller, who was service manager of Stratton Pontiac for 35 years, has been Hobo Band president three different times and also served the organization as treasurer and librarian. He's also played trumpet for the Bonsal Blues and Millville Legion Band.

But it saddens him that he no longer will be able to play his music with John Pedicord.

"He was one of the greatest guys I ever met," says the last remaining Hobo.

Copyright (C) 2007 Gloucester County Times.
Reprinted with Permission