Manistee couple inducted into Michigan Polka Music Hall of Fame

MANISTEE — It’s going to be a short walk for Manistee accordion player Eileen Hawkins when she goes from her table at the Michigan State Polka Music Hall of Fame ceremony in Owosso to the podium to accept her induction into the hall of fame, but is one that she will not be making alone.

The people at the banquet on Sunday, Oct. 7 may only see Eileen taking those steps, but in her heart she knows full well that her late husband, Ken, will be at her side every step of the way. After playing together for 53 years in the Ken Hawkins Band and being in love and married for even longer, it’s hard to imagine one without the other — and that suits Eileen just fine.

The late Ken Hawkins and his wife Eileen will be inducted into the Michigan State Polka Music Hall of Fame on Sunday Oct. 7 in Owosso. (Courtesy photo)

“I think Ken would be really proud,” said Eileen. “I feel he is with me all the time. There are many times where something bothers me or something like this is going on and I always feel he is right there with me.”

Generations of Manistee County residents and those from all over northern Michigan who grew up to the sounds of the Ken Hawkins Band at weddings, dances and other social gatherings feel the same way. It was a specific sound that touched the hearts of many, and one that even to this day brings back a host of good memories for them.

Even though Hawkins has been playing the accordion for 62 years, she said the induction into the hall of fame is an honor that surprised her.

“It is really an honor and when I went down when our banjo player was inducted, they encouraged me to send in my information for the nominating committee,” said Hawkins. “They notified me that I had been accepted along with some other individuals, so I am really honored.”

The long time music maker will be inducted at that ceremony with Kelly Grocholski (Midland), Thomas and Diane and Diane Bradley (Bannister) and Mitchell Kempinski of Dearborn Heights. To qualify for the honor a performer must be at least 50 years of age and have performed in front of the public for at least 15 years. The Michigan State Polka Hall of Fame has been honoring people since 1972.

Hawkins said her love of music began at an early age, but with a much different instruments than her trademark accordion.

“I played trumpet in the high school band from fifth grade on, but didn’t think that was too ladylike,” Hawkins said with a laugh. “I had sort of a distant aunt that took me under her wing and taught me about the piano and I really didn’t even think about the accordion at that time.

“When I was 15 years old I was hired by Herb Yankee who owned the Yankee Music Store and I saw all those accordions there, and I tried a few out and thought this seems pretty good to me. So, I bought one on the first big purchase on the payment plan and took 12 lessons from (Trinity Lutheran Church teacher/organist) Herman Schmitzer. He told me at that time that he couldn’t take me any further, ‘you have to get someone who knows more than I do.’

“So it was a wing and prayer that I had a good ear, and turned them into my own sound.”

However, her love of music was about to include a new love in it. A young man named Ken Hawkins came into it with an equal love of music and the pair clicked both musically and in life as a couple.

“Ken said he always loved the concertina since he was 5 years old, and when he came home from serving in the the Korean War, his neighbor on a farm played concertina,” said Hawkins. “So they would have home parties as they didn’t have dances and it just never left him that he loved that sound. For Fathers Day one year after we were married, I bought him a concertina and he took two lessons from Eddie Beyer in Ludington, but that was it.”

Being the father to a young family along with work commitments made it difficult for him to continue the lessons. However, that was where the love between the Hawkins emerged again. Eileen said they worked together on learning to play the instrument that helped Ken turn his lifelong dream into a reality.

“We took off and started playing in Eastlake bar and a few places for pop, and his brother came in with a set of drums and we were off and running,” said Hawkins.

They played virtually everywhere in the area in those early years. Hawkins said although many of those early performances didn’t earn them a great deal of money, they got something out of it that was even more valuable. The friendships and memories that were created are something she considers priceless today. As time went on, they grew in popularity and with it came the opportunity to play with some of the best in the business.

“I always tell the people without you there would really be no reason for us to be up here loving what we love to do,” said Hawkins. “We have played in the Upper Peninsula, down in Grand Rapids and all over at weddings. Over the years, I played as far away as Las Vegas with Frankie Yankovic for two nights, and Jimmy Travis used to come up for vacation (to Manistee) and would play with me at the Hi-Way Inn. He invited me to join him at the Eagles Lodge one night, and invited me to join him on tour with his group to the Northeast.

The Hawkins had kids in high school at the time and she couldn’t take part in it, but she did get to perform with him in Nashville at Boots Randall’s Lodge.

One family had eight kids and they played for seven weddings in that family. She said with a good natured laugh that one who didn’t use the band was the only marriage that didn’t stick, but quickly added that she was only joking. One wedding led to another, and suddenly cousins, uncles, and others were all requesting the Ken Hawkins Band as word of mouth spread about their talents.

Hawkins said that they also did there fair share of benefit concerts along the way. She said those performances over the years led to better things. It is obvious by the fact that her musical career has lasted 62 years.

“We play polkas, but we also play country, waltzes,” said Hawkins. “We can look out at the crowd and gauge if we want to play a little slower or faster. If you are not playing to your audience you are not doing your job.”

She said it is what drives her to keep producing CDs, to this day, that she sells out of her home to her many followers.

Most important for Ken and Eileen Hawkins was that the love of music led to something more important. It led to a lifelong love as a couple, and that is why it is a sure bet that Ken will be standing right beside Eileen on Oct. 7 when she proudly accepts their induction into the Michigan State Polka Music Hall of Fame.

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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