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101-year-old musician ready to hang up his horn after almost 70 years
In 1945, Lester Hailey caught a glimpse of a beautiful French-made saxophone sitting on a shelf inside a California music store. Hailey, serving stateside in the Army Air Corps at the time, decided he would teach himself how to play the musical instrument, and paid $300 on the spot for it.
Almost 68 years later, the 101-year-old man uses that same saxophone to perform at jam sessions in the Foothills area.
Hailey, who winters in the Yuma area, has been performing Big Band-era music here for the past three decades.
“Thousands of people have danced to my tunes,” he said. “There are a lot of people scattered over the Earth that have heard my name.”
Hailey still gets a kick out of performing for a live audience.
“I just love the music,” he said, although he admits he continues to get the jitters before performances even now. “I am still not easy getting before a crowd.”
Hailey enjoys performing foxtrot music and waltzes, which were very popular when he was a young man.
“That's what I grew up with,” he said, noting he doesn't dig swing music. “I don't like this new stuff – jump and jive stuff. I can't play it. It's all in sharps.”
Unfortunately, Hailey's advanced age is making it more and more difficult for him to play his saxophone.
“I may have to quit because I am going blind,” he said. “It all depends. I can't see. I had to make the notes bigger to keep playing, but even now after making them larger they begin to get blurry too.”
Hailey was born in Pasco, Wash., in 1911 and attended high school in Olympia. He grew up in a world with no television, microwave ovens, cell phones or the Internet. Even cars were a relatively new technology.
Before Hailey went to college, his father gave him a 1916 Model T that had to be cranked up to get the engine running.
“I took the body off of it and had just the frame left,” he said. “I made a ‘bug' (hot rod) out of it. It would go about 25 mph.”
Hailey graduated from college in 1934 and became a teacher for a school on the Yakima Indian Reservation. He would remain there until he was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942.
“They put me in instrument training,” he said. “I was to fix shot up instruments in fighter planes in Africa, so I went through the school in Oakland, Calif., and graduated top of the class.”
But before being sent to North Africa to join the Allies in their fight against the Nazi Afrika Korps, Hailey underwent an allergy test to see if he would be able to function in the Sahara Desert.
“I didn't pass,” he said.
Since he was unable to serve overseas, the Army gave him the assignment of helping a doctor teach first aid to new recruits. He was later transferred to the Santa Maria Army Air Base in California and placed in charge of the lumber yard.
In 1945, Hailey's 2nd Lieutenant called him into the office and said “Les, you are going home, we are through with you,” Hailey recalled. “He gave me my going away papers but no money, and I was broke, so I went out, opened the gate and thumbed my way clear home to Washington.”
When Hailey got home to Pasco, he went to work at the 5,000 acre Hailey Company Cattle Ranch owned by his father.
“My dad started it in 1910 and raised beef cattle,” Hailey said. “I worked there a little while and then I went to Seattle and worked in machine shops.”
Hailey returned to the ranch in 1957 to take over when his father retired. Each year, Hailey had to drive his herd of cattle 16 miles to Pasco to be sold at auction.
At night, Hailey and the other cattle drivers would sleep out in the open fields near the herd. They would use their horses to trample the area where they would bed down for the night in order to scare away any rattlesnakes. One night that wasn't enough.
“I tied the horse up to a fence and lay down in the sand and went to sleep,” Hailey said.
Sometime during the night, “a little baby rattler came along” and slithered into his pocket because it was warm inside.
“At about 4 a.m., I saw some steers get up and start grazing. Then I felt a little wiggle in my pocket. I didn't stick my hand in it. I was lucky. I just looked down and here he comes with his little tail up out of my pocket and he took off. Evidently he knew where he was going. I didn't bother him. I just let him go.”
Hailey often slept out under the stars. When it was time to harvest his crops, Hailey and his staff would load up boxes with hay and sleep in them, “because it was quite a ways back to the ranch house,” he said. “We just tied up the horses to the boxes and let them go to sleep, and we'd sleep there next to them and be ready to go the next day.”
Even though Hailey was busy running a ranch, he made time for music.
“I played with two girls in Pasco while I was on the farm,” he said.
One of the girls was a piano player and the second a drummer. The trio would provide live music for dances and other events.
“I would go down and play every Wednesday and every Saturday for 13 years,” Hailey said.
“After I got through with work, I'd eat supper and take off for Pasco with my horn and car and started playing at about 8 p.m. I'd play for a few hours and get home at 10:30 p.m.”
Hailey fathered three children, one son and two daughters. His son served as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War and went on to take over operations of the ranch in 1983 so Hailey could retire. Today, the ranch is operated by Hailey's adopted grandson.
After retirement, Hailey began wintering in the Foothills and performing music at various RV Parks.
“We heard it was a warm place and had a lot of music,” he said of Yuma.
So how has Hailey managed to become a centenarian?
“I never smoked, and I never drank,” he said. “I've never been drunk.”
In addition, he got plenty of exercise at his ranch raising wheat and cattle and always ate well.
“I had a big garden and raised everything,” he said. “I had plenty of water.”
Hailey also suffers from heart palpations, so when people ask him the key to a long life he jokingly replies, “my heart has had a lot of rest. It is not wore out.”
Hailey does his best to keep active in his old age, but finds it difficult with his failing eyesight. He has come to terms with his mortality and is ready for the end, especially since he can barely play his beloved saxophone.
“I've been wanting to die because I am useless,” he said candidly. “I'm used to working all my life from daylight ‘til dark on a farm, and now I can't do anything because I can't see. I'd rather lose my hearing than my sight.”
For now though, Hailey is a survivor, and may yet live on to become 102.