The Handwriting and Humor of Harry Brabec

The Handwriting and Humor
of Harry Brabec

A lesson on the importance of preserving copies of the letters and emails you are sending and receiving from family member and friends.

TODAY, ONLY THE OLDER GENERATIONS still write real letters that will some day be a family legacy. I cherish the incredible collection of handwritten letters passed down to me from family members dating back to the late 1890s, as well as the letters my late husband Harry wrote to me on the few occasions when we were separated.

After Harry died, I received a wonderful gift worth more than gold to me the day Doug MacLeod, one of Harry’s best music chums, returned to me the collection of notes and letters Harry had sent him over a period of twenty years. Doug had played bass drum alongside Harry on snare drum in all the Windjammers circus meets during that period of time, and they appreciated one another’s take on both music and humor. Through the years they exchanged audio and videotapes of music they both loved, cartoons that made them laugh, and articles about music and musicians.

Here they are below in a picture I cropped from a formal picture of the whole Windjammers Circus Band. (I think the drummers got to be up front in this shot because Harry and Doug were special friends of the conductor, the famous Merle Evans.)

Doug MacLeod and Harry Brabec

Doug MacLeod and Harry Brabec at a Windjammers meet.

Excerpts from Doug’s collection of Harry’s letters provided fascinating music history and drummer humor to the “Nostalgic Music Remembrances” chapter of The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else rides, which I published five years after Harry’s death.

SOME OF HARRY’S CORRESPONDENCE with Doug was written by hand while other notes were typed on his portable electric typewriter, on which he used his famous three-finger, two-thumb method of typing I wrote about in Homemade Money. Many letters contained information about music jobs Harry played that I had forgotten about, music he appreciated, people he’d met, and of course, little bits of humor like those shared below.

Here from that collection is an amusing postcard sent from the last vacation we took in our favorite cabin in Wisconsin. (I replaced the address area with a picture showing Harry doing what he loved to do most on vacation, which was reading.)

postcard from Harry Brabec to Doug MacLeod
In total, Harry’s letters were informative, amusing, and often touching, as the sample below shows. In it, Harry tells Doug how much he valued his friendship—something a lot of us should be doing before it’s too late for all the special people in our lives. (And yes, I returned this letter to Doug.) After Harry died, I found a little hand-written note on his desk that read, “Think of all I would have missed if I’d never met you.” At that time, I believe he was thinking not only of Doug, but about all the people whose lives had touched his over the years.

copy of a handwritten letter
Don’t Let Your Personal or Family History Be Lost

I TELL YOU TRUE: Real letters sent and saved cannot be replaced by cell phone calls and email messages. Personal and family histories are being lost because no one is saving the little details. Memory fades quickly, especially on those days when our time is fragmented and we so often feel pressured by our day-to-day work and activities. At the very least, I would ask you to consider saving special email messages you’re receiving from friends and loved ones, plus all the informative emails you send that document what you’re doing on a particular day and how you feel about it.

Also think about family letters you may have received and saved through the years. Giving them (or copies of them) back to the sender, or to a relative if that person is no longer alive, could be an incredible gift to that person. I’ll never forget the day my mother handed me a shoebox filled with a twenty-year collection of letters I’d written to her after I left home. It was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. At that point I’d been married for several years. When I sat down to read my letters, I couldn’t believe all the little details of my life that I’d forgotten. All the people I’d met, the places I’d been, and especially my feelings about the ups and downs of life with Harry. I had many of my beliefs reinforced as I saw how I’d changed through the years to accommodate his needs and demands of his work.

Another example: I had saved the ten-year collection of letters my youngest sister Mollie had sent to me during a period of our lives when we were just beginning to know one another as adult women with demanding lives of our own. These letters were all handwritten, straight from the heart and full of in-the-moment life details that would have been totally impossible to recall without the gift I gave her. I typed her letters, categorized them by topic, and made a “Book of Mollie” for her so she could relive her early years of marriage and motherhood and see how she had changed and grown through the years.

After I left home and long before I had a computer, I saved copies of all my typewritten letters in a large, three-ring binder. Much of my life documented in those letters (plus that I’d put in handwritten journals) would later become stories in one of my books. In later years I began to print email and fax messages and file them in a folder each year along with cards and handwritten letters from family and friends. I still keep a folder going each year, but now save most of my email messages to and from regular correspondents in docs saved in my PEOPLE folder. When I email a friend or family member about something I’m experiencing that day or week, it actually becomes my journal note for the day, which I file by date in my online journal for that year.

Sometimes what my heart needs more than anything is to reconnect to the past, and the most pleasurable way of doing that is to open one of annual folders of correspondence or pull out a journal kept in a particular year or period of my life. Here I will always find forgotten details and aha! moments of my life along with a treasure-trove of happy memories and new perspective on my life as a whole.

In the end, the most interesting person to us is ourselves, and only through journaling or saving your letters to others can you see where you’ve been, where you’re going, and why.

“If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it.” – Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Cover of The Drummer Drives book
MANY OF HARRY’S LETTERS appear in Barbara’s memoir, The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else Rides—The Musical Life and Times of Harry Brabec, Legendary Chicago Symphony Percussionist and Humorist. Available in both print and eBook editions.

To preview the Preface, first two chapters, and some of chapter 3, select the eBook edition as Amazon removed the “Look inside the book” from the paperback edition.



Harry Brabec, Humorist. “Anything for a laugh” could have been his motto. Get your laugh for the day in this excerpt from The Drummer Drives! Includes four “silly Harry” photos and stories guaranteed to bring a chuckle.  

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(Other articles about Harry will be found in the categories
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