World War II vet always a musician

By Regina Villiers. Originally published July 11, 2001 in The Suburban Life, added April 15, 2014.

Wally Zepf, playing the piano while in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II.

Wally Zepf, playing the piano while in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II.

Sometimes a story takes off on its own and ends up in a totally unplanned destination.  You start out at Point A, headed for Point B.  The story bops you and starts running, ending up at Point C, a pleasant place you never envisioned.

This started out as a World War II veteran’s story about Walter Zepf.  Almost immediately, it became a story about Wally Zepf, musician.

Walter downplays his World War II experiences, saying he was never in battle and was only a support person in the Army Corps of Engineers.  But support people are important in every field, every arena.  Without support people, there would be no combat veterans, no TV or movie stars, no physicians who save lives.  People like Walter were building the bridges, doing the maintenance work, and mopping up the damage, while others were flying the planes and doing the battles.

Walter got into the war near the tail end.  When he went into the Army on Aug. 3, 1945, the war was nearly over.  He was sent to Bremen, Germany, to help deal with the damages and aftermath of the war.

The thing he remembers most vividly is the  “submarine pen” built by the Germans to hide and house their submarines to keep them from being bombed.  It was huge and built of reinforced concrete.  “In April 1946, we salvaged what we could from it,” he said.

The story of Wally Zepf, musician, emerged when he brought me an old album of pictures from his Army days.  In going through the scenes of war and total devastation, I spotted one of a young man at a piano.  When I probed and pressed, he admitted that he was that young man, and yes, he did play the piano and still does.

He told a story of how his talent helped him escape the duties and trials of a new recruit.  On the troop ship going over to Germany, an officer, who was investigating the rumor that Wally played the piano, approached him.  The officer told Wally he was to appear every evening in the officers’ club to play for them.  Other duties were to be erased and forgotten.

So Wally lived it up by entertaining the officers every night with the music of the times – “Body and Soul,”  “The Man I Love,” “Stardust,” and lots of boogie woogie.

He continued to play throughout his day in the service.  He tells about playing one night in a PX club. A soldier who’d imbibed a bit too much became upset over thoughts about “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” and assaulted the piano player.  He had to be pulled off Wally.

Another story involves the commandeering of a saloon where they built a “stage” for entertainment.  The soldiers entertained themselves.  Wally played songs like “All the Things You Are,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “They’ll Never Believe Me,” and songs of the 1940’s.  Wally plays by ear.  If they could hum it, he could play it.

Wally grew up in a musical family.  His father was a good musician, and his two brothers had perfect pitch.  The three of them formed the Zepf Trio, a group which played all over Cincinnati. They were on WKRC radio every Sunday afternoon.

After the war, Wally came home and attended the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.  He didn’t graduate, dropping out after two and a half years, but he never gave up music.

He has played all over Cincinnati, all his life.  He and two buddies, Dave Magill and Paul Van Dyne, formed a trio, which they called the “Mac-Van-Walt Trio.” It consisted of Wally on piano, Dave on bass and Paul played guitar.  They played all over the area.  Their motto was “The more you drink, the better we sound.”

They must have sounded great, because people still remember them.

While in the Army, Wally had one encounter with a famous entertainer.  Kate Smith did a New Year’s Eve show in 1945 at Camp Pickett, Va.  “She was so warm and nice,” Wally said.

Though I didn’t know them until I started this story, Wally and his wife, Eileen, live only a block or so from where I live.  They’ve lived there for 29 years.

The story has taken on other coincidences too.  Eileen’s favorite music is jazz, which is my passion in music.  One of my favorite preoccupations is the CCM Jazz Ensemble led by Rick VanMatre.  I’ve gone to all their concerts for about five years, and my idea of heaven would be to listen eternally to the talented VanMatre’s sax playing.  He’s the best.  He’s also a caring teacher, shaping the lives of young musicians in a warm, caring manner.

Wally and Eileen also attend the CCM jazz concerts and share my enthusiasm and admiration for the sax-playing Rick VanMatre.

“We sent him some old jazz programs form the 1950’s,” Eileen said.  “He wrote us back such a nice letter.”

Wally and Eileen travel a lot.  They’ve been to all 48-mainland states and visited all the capitals.  And they will always share their love of music.

Wally’s music has the spontaneity of one who plays by ear.  He still plays his favorite songs – “Lili Marlene,” “Someone Like You,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart:” He also can still belt out “Bill Bailey” and “When You Wore a Tulip.”

This story didn’t end as it started, but it ended in a happy way.  It’s a perfect story.