Wichita Boys String Quintet launched careers, lifelong friendships

By Sue Roberts Nispel | November 1, 2023

My older brother and I attended Fairmount elementary school in Wichita. The sixth-grade teacher was Miss Hackett, who also served as the music teacher. When my brother, Ron, was in her class, she talked to my mother about having him play violin and offered to sell an old one she owned. After some thought and discussion with my dad, the violin was purchased, probably in 1945 or ’46. Since Jay Decker and Alice Graber were also talented music students at Fairmount, Miss Hackett was thrilled to start a little string group.

When it was time for intermediate school, Alice and Jay went to Roosevelt, but my brother went to Horace Mann. The instrumental teacher at Horace Mann was Eldon Lipp. One of the other students was John Dalley, whose father, Orin Dalley, was the first conductor of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. John Dalley played violin. Soon, a student string quartet was formed. John Dalley played first violin, Charles Johnson played second violin, my brother switched to viola and Jay Decker played cello. Since my parents had now bought a viola, I inherited the violin — much to my displeasure. I wanted to sing.

During the years they were together, the Wichita Boys String Quintet played for many local music clubs and civic groups. After school they went their separate ways, but they kept in touch with each other and played together when they all were home.

Jay Decker founded the Springfield, Mo., Youth Symphony and Kansas City Civic Orchestra before returning as a music professor at Wichita State University and associate conductor of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. Charles Johnson became an engineer with Boeing in Seattle, where he was a member of the Seattle symphony for many years. John Dalley was a violinist with the prestigious Guaneri String Quartet, traveling the world for their performances (there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to his career).

 My brother became a Presbyterian pastor, which had been his goal. John, Charles and Jay were lifelong, high-level musicians. My brother wrote a number of hymns. One time when they were together, Ron told them he would promise not to play the viola with them if they would promise not to preach in his presence.

Today, the original violin(see right) purchased from Miss Hackett sits in my living room beside the piano. I majored in music in college, but vocal music was my choice. I was a music teacher in Wichita public schools and have directed church choirs for over 50 years.  The violin was made in Germany sometime in the 1700s. It’s silent now, but serves as a reminder of a special, formative time in Wichita’s musical past.