GALLAGHER: Orange City’s Westside Four finds strength in memory of founding member
ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- Fifty-two years after their last performance, members of The Westside Four played for a three-class reunion held in conjunction with the 78th annual Orange City Tulip Festival on Saturday.
The group last played in April 1966 when four men from Northwestern College, Orange City natives all, drove to Minneapolis to record their one and only album, a record sold as a fundraiser for one of the quartet, singer/musician LeRoy Netten, who lost his fight against leukemia on July 2, 1966.
On Saturday, the trio of Bill Kalsbeek, Jim Bolluyt and Nolan Bogaard joined the recruit they tabbed, John Hubers, to fill Netten’s place as they played and sang the folk numbers, Christian songs and pop arrangements they mastered in the mid-1960s.
“Their album was the first album I ever bought,” said Hubers, who was 13 when the album came out, one underwritten, they believe, by the local Lions Club, which pushed the album as a means to raise money for the Netten family as it attempted to make ends meet during LeRoy’s courageous fight.
I had the privilege of sitting in briefly for a jam session on Friday morning at American Reformed Church in Orange City. Joining a few family members, we broke into applause as the foursome rounded out “You Can Tell the World,” the album’s title track.
The idea for a reunion gig originated with 1968 Maurice-Orange City High School graduate and 1968 Orange City Tulip Festival Queen Kathy (Oolman) King, who reached out to Kalsbeek as she planned a 50th high school class reunion to coincide with the 2018 Tulip Festival.
Kalsbeek, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and a Tulip Festival historian who wrote “Celebrating Our Dutch Heritage: The Story of the Orange City Tulip Festival” in 2015, told King he’d ask Bolluyt and Bogaard about the prospects of The Westside Four reuniting.
Bolluyt, of Ames, Iowa, is a retired structural engineering professor, while Bogaard, of Iowa City, Iowa, is a retired building inspector. All three graduated from then-Maurice-Orange City High School in 1964 and NWC in 1968.
Netten, who was one year older that this trio, graduated from M-OC in 1963. He was a Northwestern student when he died.
It took some coordination, seeing as how the three of them lived far apart, but they managed to convene at Kalsbeek’s condominium in Orange City last November. They also secured the services of Hubers, a talented singer/musician who works as associate professor of religion and director of Global Education at NWC. Hubers already knew the songs as he played the album over and over and over again as a teen.
“I literally played the album to death, because this was ‘safe’ music my parents in Orange City would allow in 1966,” he said.
The quartet played and sang “You Can Tell the World” last November and realized immediately it could -- and should -- join forces for a class reunion at Tulip Festival. The tight harmonies and chords came flooding back. As did the memories.
“A district music contest, maybe at Spencer, helped put us together in the first place as M-OC High School needed a boys’ quartet for the contest,” said Kalsbeek.
The Westside Four, which practiced in the high school music room, sang later at a school dance, doing “Surfin’ Safari,” a 1962 hit by the Beach Boys.
Netten, the son of the late Dennis and Irene Netten, bought a baritone ukulele as he matriculated from high school to Northwestern College. And, as the other voices became Red Raiders, they added instrumentation. (One of the earliest members, Mark Miller, graduated from M-OC High School and went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and didn’t stay with the group. He resides in Florida.)
Soon, NWC students Kalsbeek, Netten, Bolluyt and Bogaard were booked for shows in and around Orange City, and as far away as Denver, Cleveland and Winnipeg.
“LeRoy had his ukulele, Jim and Nolan got guitars, and I borrowed the college’s string bass,” Kalsbeek recalled. “And we learned some songs like ‘Tom Dooley,’ ‘Well, Well, Well,’ and others.”
The Westside Four, named for its members who grew up on Orange City’s west side, traveled to New York City in March of 1966, part of the college’s a Capella choir that sang at Marble Collegiate Church. After the concert, The Westside Four played and sang to entertain New York children who were members of that congregation’s youth group.
By this time, Netten was four months into his fight versus leukemia.
“I think he was diagnosed in January 1966 and, being in a small town like Orange City, word had gotten around,” Kalsbeek said. “That’s how I think the Lions Club came to arrange for us to record an album after we returned from New York. The album could be sold to help his family with medical costs.”
So, in April 1966, one month after the NYC trip, The Westside Four joined pianist Kathy DeJong, another NWC student, in traveling to Minneapolis to record 14 songs for the group’s lone album. “Ultimately, the album became a memorial to our group and to LeRoy,” Kalsbeek said. “I think they maybe made 1,000 albums.”
A few hundred of those albums, according to Hubers, might still be floating around Orange City, where stores sold them. “Everyone my age had one,” Hubers said.
“The recording was the last time we sang together,” Kalsbeek said. “LeRoy’s stamina was nil when we got back from New York City.”
The musicians marveled, and still do, at how Netten summoned the strength to shine in that one and only recording effort, an album whose hold has stretched beyond a half-century.
Kalsbeek smiled and said, “LeRoy willed his way to sing at the studio.”