Local connections with a music legend

JohnDenverportrait

JohnDenverportrait DeanDeutschendorf

In fall 1958, a young man named Aaron Dean Deutschendorf from Corn, Okla., started his freshman year at Tabor College.

Aaron, who went by his middle name of Dean, had grown up on his family?s 160-acre farm, where they raised 33 acres of wheat and 16 acres of cotton. He was the second youngest of 12 children, with nine brothers and two sisters.

The Deutschendorfs were a musical family. Dean?s oldest sister, Annie, played guitar, and his oldest brother, Hank, played mandolin; all of the family sang.

Dean had made good grades while in high school, and had been named class salutatorian both his junior and senior years. He was often smiling, very outgoing, and fun-loving, which made him quite popular.

Shortly after arriving at Tabor, Dean was elected vice-president of the freshman class. In Dean?s sophomore ?year, he was again elected a class officer, this time serving as the student council representative.

When Dean?s younger brother, Dave, graduated from the Corn Bible Academy in 1960, their mother, Anna Koop Deutschendorf, announced she was going with Dean to live in Hillsboro when he returned to college that fall, and that Dave could come with them if he wanted to. Not knowing what else to do, Dave joined them.

 

Anna found housing in what had been the Blue Jay Cafe just north of the Tabor campus, and her sons Dean and Dave lived with her in the tiny building. Anna found work as a cook in the Tabor cafeteria.

In summer 1960, before beginning his junior year at Tabor, Dean invited his 16-year-old nephew, Henry John Deutsch?endorf Jr., to join him on Sam Kroeker?s wheat harvesting crew. Henry Jr. was the son of Dean?s oldest brother, Hank, and like Dean, he went by his middle name, John.

John had lived the previous summer with pastor John Martins in Oklahoma, and had driven a tractor during the wheat harvest. John was about 31?2 years younger than Dean, and developed a close bond with him. John was impressed with Dean?s optimistic outlook on life, and how his positive attitude made others feel good.

Dean was also protective of John, who was somewhat of an outsider in the harvest crew. They traveled from state to state during the harvest, cutting wheat near Colby, among other locations.

During the Christmas break from Tabor in December 1960, the Deut?schen?dorfs returned to Oklahoma. Dean and his brother Dave worked for Abe Penner, putting up fences. On Thursday, Dec. 29, 1960, it was raining, so they couldn?t work on the fences. Dean went into Oklahoma City with friends and a relative to watch a basketball tournament.

As they traveled back on U.S. Highway 66, their car hit a patch of ice on a bridge six miles east of Clinton, Okla. The car rolled, and Dean was thrown from the car and killed instantly.

The news of his death hit Dean?s nephew, John, particularly hard; it happened just two days before John?s 17th birthday. John became depressed and withdrawn for some time afterward.

In summer 1963, Dean and Dave?s nephew, John Deutschen?dorf, came to Hillsboro for Dave?s wedding to Arva Balzer. He served as a candle lighter, along with Arva?s brother, Orman.

Early the next year, John decided to drop out of college and go to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career. In a short while he made contact with Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christie Minstrels, and Randy?s manager, Jack Daley. They recognized John?s talent, and encouraged him to change his last name from Deutschendorf to something a bit easier to say or that would fit better on a record label or marquee.

John identified with the Rocky Mountains, so he picked the last name of Denver. Thus, Dean and Dave?s nephew, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., became the singer known to the world as John Denver.

In June 1974 John Denver?s album, ?Back Home Again,? was released; the album contained a song titled ?Matthew.? Although it remains unclear how the name Matthew was picked for the song title or the subject of the song, it was written in honor of John?s uncle, Dean Deutschendorf.

The song is not a literal narrative of Dean?s life, but rather captures his optimism and other feelings and memories inspired by him. The opening lyrics of the song went:

?I had an uncle, name of Matthew, he was his father?s only boy.

?Born just south of Colby, Kansas, he was his mother?s pride and joy.

?Yes, and joy was just a thing that he was raised on, love was just a way to live and die.

?Gold was just a windy Kansas wheat field, blue was just the Kansas summer sky.?

About that same time, during the Kansas wheat harvest in 1974, John Denver returned to the Hillsboro area with his father, Hank, and a two-man camera crew. They had been in touch with John?s uncle, Dave, and were looking to film in a wheat field, and they also needed to find an antique plow and a mule.

Dwayne and Diane Claassen gave them permission to film in their field, and Dwayne readied a tractor for them to use. Orman and Eleanor Balzer?s son, Doug, appeared in the film wearing a pair of wire-rim glasses borrowed from local optometrist Norman Abrahams, so he could resemble a young John Denver.

Dave and Arva Deutschen?dorf?s son, Troy, appeared as a young Matthew in some scenes, and perhaps as John?s younger brother Ron in other scenes. John?s father, Hank, appeared as Matthew?s father in some of the scenes, as well as an adult Matthew; Dave also filled in for Hank in some of these scenes.

In addition to filming in the Hillsboro area, the crew filmed scenes between Marion and Florence, between Canton and Galva, and on the road between Canton and Hesston.

The completed film, about 31?2 minutes in length, was aired as part of John?s television special in March 1975, ?An Evening with John Denver,? which received two prime time Emmy Awards.

The film was shown in following years as John performed the song ?Matthew? in concert. Various forms of the film, some better quality than others, can occasionally be found on YouTube. (Try searching ?An Evening With John Denver Matthew.?)

The song ?Matthew? remains a favorite of many John Denver fans. Some have even suggested it be named the state song of Kansas. And it was all inspired by a young man who attended Tabor College by the name of Dean Deutschendorf, the real Matthew.

Ed Hiebert is a Hillsboro native and a 1969 Hillsboro High School graduate. He is currently employed as a pharmacy technician in Tempe, Ariz., and enjoys researching family histories.

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