Dr. Robert (Bob) Manthey is a 94-year-old retired optometrist who still actively shares his music in a group known as The Clefs. Each Monday, he can be seen pulling a simple wooden pallet on wheels with a rope to the Downtown Senior Center at Aging Partners in Lincoln. On that pallet is a group of instruments all his own, and he can play each one.
Among the instruments are a drum set, tambourines, bells and kazoos, a brass baritone and a well-used trumpet. Manthey also plays the piano. The neatly stacked load includes music he has used for years – big band tunes, golden oldies and patriotic melodies.
The robust and jovial Lincoln resident of 54 years is known for his continuing passion and philosophy about achieving 20/20 vision. He loves to talk about it almost as much as he enjoys sharing his music.
Joining The Clefs
Over 20 years ago, Manthey walked into Aging Partners where the The Clefs, a five-member band, was playing. They asked him to join. The talented seniors performed at various venues and assisted living homes in and around Lincoln.
From the beginning, Manthey put his heart and soul into performances – if he is not playing an instrument, he may be greeting listeners as he sings “It’s Hard to be Humble” and shakes their hands. His friendly manner brings smiles.
“I like to think we are taking a personal interest in a particular person,” he said.
The Clefs’ members have changed over the years; some musicians have passed away. Instruments have changed, too.
Still, Manthey is determined to keep the band going. He is joined by cellist Jane Hayes, singer Mary Ann Fitzpatrick and pianist Gary Snook. Manthey not only sings but also plays any of his instruments. If need be, he’s capable of changing from one to the other during a song.
“He gives a lot of joy to others,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s been dedicated to music all of his life.”
She appreciates his relaxed manner.
“He’s quite the patient person; he just motions who he wants to sing or play.”
Their performances are laid back and easy to listen to. Manthey adds bits of humor followed by a slight bang on a cymbal. He’ll call out a key, a number in their tattered song books, or choose to add some harmony. An American patriot, he usually ends with “God Bless America,” asking listeners to sing along.
Other musical activities
But Manthey’s energy does not stop there. He is also a member of the “Dixie Downbeats,” a mixed instrumental band established by Dan Murray of Lincoln in 2010 to keep Dixie music alive. Manthey and his son, Dr. Anthony Manthey (also an optometrist), joined the band about four years ago. They play at retirement villages, nursing homes and churches. Members range in age from 19 to 94. Manthey’s specialty is the baritone, while his son plays the saxophone or banjo. But, like his dad, he also plays other instruments.
As a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Choir, Manthey faithfully shows up for practice early to help set up microphones and equipment. He has attended the church since it was built in 2000.
“Dr. Manthey is a great person, said Mike Zeleny, head music director. “He’s a dedicated member of our choir.”
Zeleny described Manthey as a very interesting person who is young at heart and like “a breath of fresh air.” He brings baked treats to choir members after mass, Zeleny said. He recently sang in the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and on Christmas Day.
In his spare time, he works at Food Net, attends the Prairie Astronomy Club and is active at the “Coffee Haus,” a gathering for veterans and their families held at the Lincoln Veterans Administration Campus every third Friday.
Or sometimes he just shows up to dance.
“I enjoy dancing at the Auld Pavilion, Mahoney Manor or at the Playmoor,” he said with a grin. If he should meet someone who does not know the two-step or polka, he will teach them.
He said his ability to dance came from his wife Virginia, who passed away 12 years ago. After all his years playing for dances, she candidly told him, “You don’t have a step.”
“She was from the East Coast and had danced with a lot of GI’s,” he said. He consented to taking lessons, and for the first time in years learned that “there is a pattern” to dancing.
Musical childhood in rural South Dakota
Born on a farm near Madison, South Dakota, Manthey and his five sisters (all still living – the oldest is 96) were raised by hard-working parents, Tony and Mary Manthey. His adventure in music began at age 5.
The Mantheys were in a band whose members met at the farmhouse to practice. When the drummer took a break, his mom said, “Bob, sit down and play the drums.” So he did. It came naturally.
When Manthey was 8, a farmhand gave Manthey one of his extra cornets. Although he couldn’t read music, he tried to play it. He read x’s on staff paper signifying notes and finger numbers 1, 2 and 3 – it was a beginning.
But genuine experience is what really increased Manthey’s musical ability.
“Anytime my mother played the piano, I would play along,” he said. He recalled a few tunes they played: “My Gal Sal,” “Little Brown Jug” and “Margie.”
In high school, Manthey auditioned for the band. The instructor smiled and said, “It sure is great to hear someone who can play!” He was surprised to learn Manthey could not read music.
“Then I got an old baritone from him,” Manthey recalled, “but I still ear-balled.” In time, he understood music and sang in quartets in high school and college.
His parents started a family band, “The “Manthey Meadowlarks,” that played three times a week or more for dances and community events – like county fairs. Manthey played his cornet and baritone.
After World War II, when he served in the U.S. Navy as a pilot in the Pacific Theater, he studied aeronautical engineering and music at the University of Michigan. He met his wife there and they had 12 children; seven boys and five girls. Sadly, they lost one boy at age 3.
Poor eyesight leads to doctorate in optometry
Manthey studied hard but struggled with grades because of his eyesight. So, he went to an eye doctor and got glasses. But it didn’t help.
“I noticed the loss of distant vision and the glasses were making my eyes worse,” he recalled.
“It aroused my curiosity a lot,” he said. So he earned his doctorate in optometry. And he continued to play music with the Pappy Graves Band, a well-known big band group in Memphis, Tennessee.
He established his optometry practice in Minden, Nebraska, and joined a dance band that performed around central Nebraska.
By 1964, the family relocated to Lincoln, where Manthey stayed active as a doctor and musician. He retired from his practice in 1969.
What keeps him motivated to share music? “I enjoy it, that’s all I know,” he said candidly. He feels it is important to give back to others. Sharing his musical talents is a perfect fit and keeps him young.