Saturday, February 18, 2017

Frank Tichenor

When Frank Tichenor died in 1985 he left a legacy of violins and a remarkable story
          Around 1900, a young black man from Kentucky with a fifth-grade education and an ear for music arrived on a bicycle in Terre Haute after a 170-mile trip along dirt roads. By the time he died more than 80 years later, that young man had left a lasting mark on his adopted home.

          Frank Tichenor, who died in 1985 at age 103, was known around Terre Haute as an outstanding violinist, a skilled craftsman, a loving family man and a respected member of the Bethlehem Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith. On his 100th birthday, Tichenor received the key to the city from then-Mayor P. Pete Chalos.

          Born in 1881 in Ohio County, Ky., Tichenor learned to play the violin by ear, which was not unusual for people living in rural western Kentucky at that time, according to Anna Laura Duncan of the Ohio County Historical Society.

          “He wouldn’t have known a [musical] note if it was six feet tall,” said Howard Tichenor, who was raised by Frank and called him “Dad,” although Frank was actually his great uncle. “He could hear a song just one or two times and he could play it.”

          Frank Tichenor was about 20 years old when he rode his bicycle on dirt roads from his home in Beaver Dam, Ky., to Terre Haute — a trip of more than 170 miles — where he hoped to find work. During that trip, Frank spent the night at the homes of family members in Evansville and Vincennes, but he slept in a barn during his stop in Sullivan, Howard Tichenor said.

          Frank later left Indiana, but eventually returned to Terre Haute and started working at Armstrong Walker Lumber Co. as a wood craftsman. In his spare time, Frank crafted by hand wooden furniture, gunstocks and, most notably, violins.

          Aimee Wright, Frank’s granddaughter, will inherit one of the remaining violins made by her grandfather. It belongs to her father, Howard, and has the words “Frank Tichenor Special” written on the inside. Howard still has his old violin, but has promised it to his daughter, he said.

          When Howard attended Sarah Scott Junior High School in Terre Haute, his music teacher told him the “Frank Tichenor Special,” made in 1952 from wood imported from Germany, was an outstanding violin, Howard recalls. Later, a professional violinist visiting Indiana State University confirmed that opinion, he said.

          “It’s just synonymous with him,” Wright, a Vincennes native, said of the violin made by her grandfather. “It symbolizes his work ethic and making something from nothing.”

          Another of Frank’s violins, this one dated 1969, belongs to his stepdaughter, Flossie Davis of Terre Haute. Davis was around 21 years old when “Pop” Tichenor married her mother, Helen Owens, in the early 1950s.

          “He really made some nice violins,” Davis said. “He really knew what he was doing.”

          Frank Tichenor “was a very gentle person” and very easy to talk to, noted Howard Lewis Sr., a member of the Bethlehem Temple Church who remembers Tichenor well. Frank often brought two violins to church, hooked them up to a small amplifier, and played music at several services each week for about 25 years, Lewis said. “You could feel his own personal joy coming through” in the music he played, he said.

          Davis agrees.

          “You should have seen him [play the violin] in church,” she said. “I mean, he could go. I mean, he made good music.”

          Frank really “respected his violins,” Lewis notes. “Pop” Tichenor would gladly answer questions about his homemade instruments, but “you didn’t touch his violins,” Lewis said.

          One day when he was in the fifth grade, Howard Tichenor ran to catch the school bus without making sure his violin case was properly latched. It wasn’t, and the violin tumbled to the floor, breaking the bridge. “That’s the only time I ever heard [Dad] swear,” Howard said with a laugh. “He really threw a fit.”

          While residing in Terre Haute, Frank Tichenor lived on South Second Street near the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He later lived in the Highland neighborhood on North 14 1/2 Street before moving to a residence farther south on 14th Street. While living in Highland, Frank bought an old school bus without wheels and turned it into a wood shop.

          Coincidentally, Frank grew up in the late 1800s in Ohio County, Ky., at the same time as another highly talented black string musician, Arnold Schultz. Schultz, part of a family of traveling musicians, would later be recognized as among the most important influences on the “father of bluegrass music,” Bill Monroe, also from Ohio County. At one time, according to the Bowling Green Daily News, Schultz worked as a hotel porter in Tichenor’s small hometown of Beaver Dam.

          Howard Tichenor learned to read music at school in Vigo County, but at home, his father taught him to play hymns and gospel songs on the violin. Once in a while, however, when he was in an especially good mood, Frank would break into a “big grin” and start playing “country and western” music of the sort you would hear at a square dance, Howard recalled. Sometimes, hearing this music, Frank’s wife would poke her head into the room and say, “Mr. Tichenor, that’s enough of that,” Howard said with a laugh. Frank and Helen called each other “Mr. and Mrs. Tichenor,” he noted.

          Frank played his violins, as well as the harmonica, at the Bethlehem Temple Church well past his 90th birthday, Lewis said. When he passed away in April 1985, he was laid to rest in Grandview Cemetery on Margaret Avenue in Terre Haute. His wife of 33 years, Helen, had passed away a few months earlier.

          By all accounts, Frank Tichenor remained active and energetic nearly all his life. Howard recalls his father, despite owning a car, would walk once a week from his Highland neighborhood to downtown Terre Haute — about 70 blocks in all — to pay bills . “He used to get on me because I took the bus,” Howard said with a laugh.

          “He was a spunky gentleman,” Davis recalls. “I don’t think I ever saw him with a cane.”

          Frank also really threw himself into his music, Lewis remembers. The music he played in church was often slow and gentle, but not sad or weepy, he added. “It was something of his he just loved to share.

          “He did things the old-fashioned way,” Lewis said of Tichenor, who also was known as an avid fisherman, a loving father, grandfather and husband, and excellent trainer of dogs. When he would drive his Plymouth station wagon, Frank would only allow his wife, Helen, to ride in the front seat, Lewis said. “That was her seat for sure.”

          In 1984, a year before Frank Tichenor died, Howard and his then-wife had a son, who they named Frank. “I really thought Dad had a special life,” Howard said, explaining why he named his first son after the man who raised him. “The older I got, the more amazed I became at what a remarkable person he was.”

By: Arthur Foulkes
Terre Haute News, Terre Haute, IN - Feb 28, 2009

(Frank was the son of Henry Harrison Tichenor and married 2-2-1880 to Amanda Whittinghill. His second wife was Helen S. Withers, whom he married in 1955. Frank died 19 April 1985 and is buried in Grandview Cemetery, Terre Haute, IN.)

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