Carl Leo Dietrich

Carl Leo Dietrich
Carl Leo Dietrich (Baltimore Sun)

Carl Leo Dietrich, who had been chairman of the music department at what is now McDaniel College and later was a founder of the Columbia Orchestra, died May 24 of a fall at his Naples, Fla., home.

The former Columbia resident was 85.


"His influence of joyful exuberance is still very much a part of the spirit of music-making here in the department today," said Dr. Margaret Boudreaux, who succeeded Mr. Dietrich as department chair in 1991.

"He was my immediate predecessor as chair, and the person that hired me," said Dr. Boudreaux. "His energy and enthusiasm for music and life was legendary."


Mr. Dietrich was born into a musical family in Trenton, N.J., in 1926. His father was a violinist with the Trenton Symphony Orchestra, and also was a singer, flutist and guitarist.

"My earliest memory is of the five of us kids sitting on the floor of the living room while Dad played a violin concerto and Mom accompanied him on piano," said Mr. Dietrich in a 1990 interview with The Hill magazine, a publication of McDaniel College. "That's not a bad beginning."

Mr. Dietrich was 7 years old when he requested a violin for Christmas.

"Dad gave me one and, by the end of the day, I could play all the Christmas carols on one string," he said.

He studied the violin and when an older brother was drafted into the Army in World War II, he left behind his trombone, which Mr. Dietrich learned to play. It became the main instrument he played throughout his life, along with the viola.

He once quipped that it was easier to list what instruments he couldn't play than those he could play, and there were only two. "I don't play oboe or bassoon," he said.

He joined the Trenton Symphony Orchestra, and after graduating in 1944 from Trenton Catholic High School, served for two years in the Army, seeing combat in both France and Germany.

After the end of the war, Mr. Dietrich landed the position of first trombone with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and then came to Baltimore, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

"My teacher at Peabody always said to be prepared to teach so you have something to fall back on if you don't make it as a performer," he explained in the interview.

In 1952, he joined the faculty of McDonogh School, then an all-male military school, where he headed the music department.

"I took over as conductor of the Preakness Band. Through that job I met a couple hundred musicians, who became my contacts," he said.

Mr. Dietrich either played or sang with many groups, some of which included the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, Bach Society, Baltimore Comic Opera, Colts Marching Band as well as the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.


Some of the celebrities he accompanied in those years included Tony Bennett, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Jack Benny and Sammy Davis Jr.

The reason he was so highly sought after as a member of the Baltimore music scene was his ability to speed read music and fill in at the last minute for a player who fell ill.

His professional work also was playing in pit bands of Block burlesque houses such as the Gayety on East Baltimore Street. He recalled playing for ecdysiasts as being perhaps the oddest of his gigs.

He was required to roll his eyes lecherously from side to side while belting out appropriate music to accompany the action on stage.

"Anyone with clothes on was weird," he said in The Hill interview. "We'd rehearse Sunday mornings. While everyone else is in church, here you are down on The Block practicing with stripteasers. You try to learn the music while watching the girls. I did not want to do this for long."

In the late 1950s, while selling instruments for Menchery Music Services, which required him to give a lesson or two to the purchaser, he realized he had a knack for teaching.

In 1967, Mr. Dietrich joined the faculty of what was then Western Maryland College, preferring the small liberal arts college atmosphere to that of the conservatory.

"Carl was always interested in finding the most creative ways to reach students. He wanted to help students find the best pathway to success," said Dr. Boudreaux.

"He came my senior year and taught me conducting, and when I went to graduate school to get my master's, I was told by my instructor that 'I conducted like a man,' which was the ultimate compliment," said his wife of 39 years, the former Dr. Susan McChesney, a retired Collier County, Fla., educator and administrator. "Carl was such a wonderful teacher."

He established the Western Maryland College Community Music Program, which he explained "matches up town and gown," by allowing local citizens accessibility to music instruction and lectures.

Mr. Dietrich retired in 1991.

He was also a founder in 1977 of the Columbia Chamber Orchestra, now the Columbia Orchestra, and served as its second music director and conductor from 1988 to 1990.

"He was tremendously respected as an all-around musician and had first-rate musical training," said Jason Love, the orchestra's current conductor, who is in his 13th season.

After moving to Naples, Fla., Mr. Dietrich played trombone and viola with the Naples Orchestra and Chorus for the past 15 years.

He was an avid woodworker and also hand-crafted instruments. While at McDaniel College, he and a student, Linda Franklin, built the harpsichord that is in Levine Hall.

He was a member of Unity Church of Bonita Springs in Florida, where a memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 23.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Dietrich is survived by a brother, August "Gus" Dietrich of Greenville, N.C.; a sister, Nancy Kinsley of Trenton; and many nieces and nephews. His first wife, the former Virginia Mullinix, died in 1972.

Mr. Dietrich requested that his obituary contain the same final line as his father's: "Life is a song."

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