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Merton Utgaard's Band Camp


If you went to International Music Camp between 1956 and 1983, you most definitely remember the tall, silver-haired gentleman who ran the show – he was Merton Utgaard, the camp’s founder. He was born in Maddock in 1914, and today marks the anniversary of his death five years ago.

Experiencing Dr. Utgaard as a music conductor was at once terrifying and awe-inspiring. Tryouts were torture. Joe Alme, the camp’s present administrator, recalls summer, 1963: “My first three days at camp were the worst of my life. I sat last chair trombone that first year. I discovered how little I knew, but by Thursday, I was totally hooked. Dr. Utgaard’s expectations were high, and he knew what he wanted. He had a look that could kill and a ‘wink’ that made you proud, and inspired you to work even harder. There has never been anyone else like him.”

The basic daily schedule has not changed since the camp opened in 1956, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. His daughter Karen says, “The first year, the student housing stood in a field of dirt that quickly became mud on opening day. Everyone took off their shoes and socks and trudged through the rain to the dorms. Only, the water wasn’t working, so we had to wash our muddy feet in the toilets. It took a couple of days before there was HOT water, and it rained almost all week. Afterwards, Dad thought that he had seen the last of the music camp he had envisioned for so many years.”

Luckily, Dr. Utgaard’s worries were unfounded, and the camp became a tremendous success. At least 100,000 young artists from 67 nations have attended IMC since then, and Utgaard became recognized the world over for his vision and tireless dedication.

About his own career, Alme now says, “There is no doubt that I made music education my career because of Dr. Utgaard and the influence of his work. There are literally hundreds of others who attended IMC who feel the same way.”

“Dad was one of those people who felt if you wanted to do something, you just did it,” his daughter says. “A story my mother once told me was when Dad was living in Valley City working toward becoming an Eagle Scout, and he needed just one more merit badge in swimming. For some reason he missed the test, and the water was now too cold in the river. So he decided to go to Fargo to the YMCA to be tested. He didn’t have a car, and neither did his folks, so he hitch-hiked. Before he had gone too far, a big car stopped and offered him a ride. Bill Langer, a North Dakota politician, gave him a ride to Fargo. His fee was for Dad to ask his folks to vote for him.”

Dr. Utgaard’s passion was evident in almost everything he did. “He had always wanted a sailboat,” Karen remembers, “but he was really not very good at sailing. He finally got his own sailboat late in life and loved to sail on Lake Metigoshie. Those of us who went with him called it ‘getting out of the weeds,’ but that didn’t discourage him in the least.

He also spent hours talking to people all over the world on his ham radio. A few times he got to help out in emergencies when phone lines were out. I also remember studying Morse Code. I’m not sure why we were all learning it, but it was a family event. He said you never know when it might come in handy.”

Dr. Utgaard was honored with a host of well-deserved awards over his lifetime, but some would like to see him receive the Rough Rider Award as well. And there’s probably a terrific band somewhere that would love to play for the celebration...

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm