By Steve Svetovich
Sometimes stories have happy endings. And miracles do happen.
Take the case of Don Reese, for instance.
You would have to be an old time musician from this area between the age of 70 to 100 to remember Don Reese.
And there are those still living who do, the oldest being Gene Dempsey at 97.
Then there is my dad. Don Reese was a guitarist in my dad’s band, The Fortunes, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
As a matter of fact, it was Reese who named the band, “The Fortunes” on the way to a band job in the Pocono Mountains.
The band remains “The Fortunes” to this day, with my dad still as the leader and drummer.
The older group of musicians besides my dad and Dempsey who remember Reese includes Jimmy Tigue, Billy Woelkers, Jack Skosko, Frannie Burne, Roger Finnerty, Sam Cortese, Paul Ardito and Eddie Switala, who still performs in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
My dad, Switala, Skosko, the late Jimmy Keese and Reese were all a part of The Fortunes as far back as 1959 and into the 1960’s.
Some of the old-time musicians who passed away in recent years and remembered Reese include Art Stanton, Johnny Cognetti, Teddy Munchak, Johnny Cardona, Pete Pusateri, Chuck Morris, Joe Chesarini, Teddy Mileski and Wally Aikens.
Reese was raised in the Pinebrook section of Scranton. He quit high school to care for his ailing mom, so his father could work. He had no other family.
A self-taught musician, he started playing guitar at local clubs in the Scranton and Dunmore area.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957 where he served in the band. Upon returning, he joined The Fortunes performing in Downtown Scranton clubs at “The Strip” on Lackawanna Avenue and at resorts in the Pocono Mountains.
Reese was known as a character who enjoyed his beer. And did he enjoy his beer! Short and round in stature, he had a thick mustache and a jolly, jovial nature.
Every local musician had a story to tell about his drinking exploits and some of the situations it would place the band in. Reese didn’t have a driver’s license, so other band members would pick him up for a job. He was kind of a simple guy who liked to read comic books, drink countless beers and strum his guitar. He had no other income other than the money he made playing.
He called a gig in The Poconos “a five quart job” meaning he would have time to drink five quarts of beer while getting a ride to the job.
He was a splendid guitar player and had a habit of tapping his foot to the music while performing on stage. The combination of foot tapping and alcohol sometimes led to his falling off the corner of the stage. But that was the nature of Don Reese, the character fellow musicians became accustomed to. He still played a whale of a guitar and was likeable. The key was to get through a job without him stumbling, falling, or passing out on the floor.
So what happened to Don Reese?
Jimmy Tigue, a talented piano player and singer who once appeared on “The Tonight Show,” went to San Diego, California, with Reese in the mid 1970’s. The pair went to visit Pete Barbutti, a stand-up comic from Scranton, in Las Vegas before heading to San Diego. Barbutti was a regular on the late Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and even served as a substitute host. Barbutti, 88, still performs and lives in Las Vegas.
Following the visit with Barbutti, the pair also stopped in Utah before settling in San Diego. Tigue and Reese began performing in local clubs, but Reese’s drinking habits got them in trouble and soon Tigue was performing alone.
“He was there about a year with me,” said Tigue. “The last time I saw him was on a street corner in San Diego. He had been drinking and said he was going to hitchhike with his guitar to Tijuana, Mexico. I saw him with his thumb out and off he went. I never saw or heard from him again.”
My dad and Woelkers soon after received letters from Reese stating he was hitchhiking to Tijuana, Mexico. That was in 1975.
Tigue soon after returned to Scranton and performed with The Fortunes and other local bands.
Tigue, Woelkers, my dad and the other musicians never heard from Reese again. There were no letters or phone calls from him. There was no known address. He had no family left to ask.
All the local musicians had left were countless stories about Reese. As the years went on, many thought something may have happened to him in Mexico. Attempts were made to find him in the advent of the Internet age, but there were no records or traces of him. Many feared he had passed.
So for decades, the local musicians thought Don Reese was gone for good.
Until late last month.
My sister Denise was on a Pete Barbutti fan page website on Facebook. She suddenly noticed a Don Reese sent the fan page a text asking how Barbutti was and stating he was a former classmate and band mate with him as a teenager in Scranton.
My sister felt a chill. Could this be the Don Reese who has been missing and not heard of for nearly five decades?
She showed me the text which we noticed came from a woman’s Facebook page. The woman’s first name is Linda. We searched her Facebook page and then googled her name. We found about four phone numbers.
First my sister communicated with Linda via private messages. She confirmed he was the Don Reese from Scranton and that he was even asking how my dad was doing. She was helping to care for him in San Diego.
I called Linda on one of the numbers. She answered and told me she had been messaging my sister back and forth. She told me Don Reese was sitting right next to her and wanted to talk to my dad. I spoke to Don first. I had not seen him since I was 14, but recognized his voice. He confirmed it was him and began mentioning his hometown and previous fellow band members. Then I put my dad on the line with him.
My dad thought he was dead for over 40 years. But Don Reese is alive and well at 89 in San Diego and still strums his guitar.
What he doesn’t do anymore is drink. And that probably saved his life.
He told me he quit drinking a little more than 40 years ago to turn his life around. Don told me he diligently attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for years to help keep himself sober. He has not had a drink in over 40 years.
Don said he never came back to this area or contacted his old musician friends because he was told by Alcoholics Anonymous to leave his previous life and friends in the past.
But he was sure happy to reconnect with my dad.
So for all of you old musicians still out there, Don Reese is not dead or missing in Tijuana, Mexico, like many surmised.
He is alive and well in San Diego, California. More alive than ever.
“It’s a miracle,” said my dad. “It’s hard to believe.”