Wallace DePue Sr. has been a fighter since the day he was born in a Columbus basement in the midst of the Great Depression.
From physical brawls with his elementary school peers to battling poverty, heartbreak and other composers in worldwide music competitions, DePue has faced it all in his 83 years.
More often than not, he triumphs.
“I’ve had this philosophy since I was young that I caught from my mother. You always have to keep moving, get ahead and think about what you can accomplish next,” he said.
The Bowling Green State University professor emeritus has an impressive list of accomplishments, most recently winning an honorable mention for his opera, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” from The American Prize.
Last year, he won the Gold Medal award from the Boston Metro Opera for his barbershop opera “Something Special,” beating out 625 works submitted by composers from six continents.
“I almost fell off my chair when I saw the results,” DePue said.
But DePue might never have become the composer he is today if not for his scrappy childhood tendencies.
“I was smaller than most of the boys I fought with, but I could fight. That’s not surprising, given my father was a fight trainer and I was an amateur boxer as a teenager,” he said. “I was a fast gun. I usually had a black eye or a cut somewhere and never looked quite healthy. But I stood up to those who tried to take away my pride.”
One day, when he was about 8 years old, he was hawking newspapers in town to support himself and his family when a boy his age purposely ran into him and knocked his papers to the ground.
The two fought each other right then and there until the boy suddenly stopped.
DePue thought his opponent was throwing in the towel.
“The boy said he wasn’t giving up, he just needed to get to his church choir practice. So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll follow you there and wait for you to be done and then we’ll pick this thing up where we left off.’”
After a while, DePue got tired of waiting for his adversary and was curious as to what a choir was and what they did.
He peeked into the church’s window and was surprised to find the choir director staring back at him.
The director urged the curious lad to come in and sing.
The music he heard was ethereal, DePue said, and he joined them, later becoming a student of the Columbus Boy’s Choir School, now the American Boy Choir School.
At the same time, he took lessons to become a concert pianist, going on to write his first operetta libretto and compose music for his class graduation ceremony at Ohio State University High School.
In the 1950s, he won contests that allowed him to perform on the Arthur Godfrey and Horace Heidt nationwide talent shows, which opened a lot of doors for him, he said.
After college and graduate school, DePue taught high school choral music before landing a job at the Toledo Museum of Art as curator of music.
In 1966, just a year after marrying Linda Kallman, a pianist and music teacher, he joined BGSU faculty as a music professor.
“He of course brought his experience and compositions to BGSU but he also brought a profound sense of loyalty to the College of Music,” said Alan Smith, professor of Music Performance Studies.
Smith worked with DePue for almost 20 years and considers him “a true gentleman,” he said.
“There’s no pretense about him. The phrase ‘what you see is what you get’ would fit him,” Smith said.
“He’s genuine, honest, full of integrity and his music is a reflection of himself and his life.”
No one knows this better than his four sons, each “virtuoso” violinists, DePue said.
Wallace Jr. was the former concertmaster of the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra and now freelances; Alex is a two-time world champion fiddle player and classical violinist; Jason is in the first violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Zachary is the concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Though he gave them all music lessons along with Kallman, DePue never stops being amazed by their talents, which manifested early on, he said.
“When their mother passed away in 1986 due to an automobile accident, Zachary came up to me and said, ‘Daddy, I wrote a song.’ I thought, ‘You’re six years old and you wrote a song?’” he said. “I asked him what it was called and he said, ‘Mama’s Waltz.’ I asked him to play it for me and that little boy made the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.”
For four years, DePue raised his boys on his own and mourned the loss of his wife.
Finally, in 1990, he met and married Elaine Markopoulos, and his heart was lighter once more.
“It was love at first sight,” DePue said. “She’s my soulmate.”
DePue retired in 1998, but he hasn’t stopped cranking out compositions.
From the moment he gets up in the morning to the time he goes to sleep at night, the music never stops, he said.
“Unfortunately, like most famous composers, the world will likely not grasp the bulk of my father’s work until after he’s passed on,” said his second born, Alex DePue. “Someday, after all his works are uncovered and performed widely and regularly, people will understand his genius. And I really do believe he’s a genius.”
The moment Alex DePue realized his father’s brilliance was at a Burger King, of all places, where he spent ten minutes writing a symphony on the back of a napkin based solely on four bars his son had sung a moment before.
These memories, as well as his priceless musical coaching, have left him proud to be his son.
“All of us boys are able to do superhuman things now with the instruments. If not for him and his direction, who knows where we’d be now,” Alex DePue said.
Without his ability to power through adversity time and again, Wallace DePue Sr. might have become a different person, too.
He continues to aim higher, even if he doesn’t always win first prize.
“I’m still winging it. I have a drawer full of rejections. Ask me if I care,” DePue said. “I’ll get something somewhere. I believe in what I write.”