Remembering Leon Dudley

I have met or learned of some of the most interesting people through conversations with Max Morath. Recently he happened to mention his work in Pueblo, Colorado, as program manager at radio station KGHF about 1950 and his fond memories of working with Leon Dudley, a local musician.

Much of the information for this article comes from Max’s recollections and telephone conversations with his Leon’s sons. David is still in Pueblo and the oldest son Don, lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area,

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Leon was a popular local pianist who had a regular radio program on Pueblo station KGHF. In the late 1950s Max did a stint as program director, announcer, and occasional performer there. The station went on the air at 11:30 weekdays and the two men would meet for coffee every morning before Leon went on the air. They became close friends and Max can vividly recall Leon in the studio with the large nine-foot grand piano and Max in the control room,

According to a station employee quoted in the Pueblo paper, Max and Leon would sit for hours at the station’s twin pianos improvising and perfecting their styles. Even today over seventy years later, Max speaks in glowing terms of Leon’s talent and remembers his gregarious personality, quick mind, and his amazing sensory ability. To Max, this was all the more amazing because Lean had been blind from birth.

Leon Dudley (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable), was born in Karval, Colorado in 1920. He was an accomplished pianist who taught himself to play at age five and formally learned about music at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs where he also studied piano and violin. However, the focus there was on classical music and Leon wanted to play the popular standards of the day.

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The school was residential, and he began living there at the age of seven. Separated from his familiar surroundings and loving family at such a young age was traumatic, and his time in Colorado Springs was often difficult.

His remarkable intelligence and musical talent were quickly recognized by the community when he returned to Pueblo and Leon was quite the local celebrity. Don recalls accompanying his dad on Saturday mornings as they walked downtown to pay bills and take care of business. Everyone seemed to know Leon as they walked through Pueblo and Leon spoke to friends on the street by name on hearing their voices or if they were near, he identified them by smell. His other senses were extremely keen.

Leon Oliver “Bowse” Dudley playing with violinist and classmate William Monk at the Colorado School for the Deaf & the Blind, 1940.

He was a prolific reader, and he was always up to date on the news and the arts which made him a great conversationalist. His sense of humor was contagious.

Leon played in most of the Pueblo entertainment venues during his career. He had a dance band when he finished school. Some of his longer stints were at the Broken Dollar, and five weeks before he died, he was playing at the La Renaissance. He often had to play two or more places in a row the same night which made transportation logistics a challenge for friends and family. Leon was also a proficient piano tuner, and that occupation kept him busy during the day.

Leon’s family has posted several videos of him playing on YouTube. Both sons speak with genuine admiration about their father and Don remarked that they never heard Leon complain about being blind. However, he was often outspoken and quick to share an opinion like the time he yelled at a little league umpire over a bad call (think about it). He lived courageously in the eyes of his sons.

A few years ago, when Max and Moss Hall were writing a screenplay about Blind Boone, Max reflected on his time with Leon Dudley as he thought about a blind person’s perspective on the world.

Leon Dudley

As I spoke to Leon’s son’s and heard Max reminisce about this remarkable man, I began thinking about all the talented people that have entertained local audiences and then drifted into obscurity without broader celebrity to keep their legacies alive. This then is a tribute to Leon Dudley and all those talented men and women who used their talents to entertain their local communities with joy and dedication.

Leon Dudley died on November 30, 1992 at the age of 72. To his family and friends, he was known as “Bowsers,” or “Bowse,” because of his life-long love of dogs.

Radio Station KGHF has morphed into other ownership in another state, but Leon Dudley’s legacy is still recalled fondly by his family and friends. If this was an article for the old Readers’ Digest, it would probably be headed “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Known.”

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

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