Don Lipovac, polka king of KCK, will be missed

Some musicians are so beloved that the faithful follow them around the country, gig to gig.

But how many have played the accordion?

At least one: Don Lipovac, the polka king from Kansas City, Kan.

Lipovac was a staple of entertainment at ethnic festivals, weddings and parties for decades, and he taught hundreds of young people the importance of music and cultural heritage.

The Don Lipovac Orchestra Booster Club once had as many as 200 members who would hire buses and follow him to performances across the country, from Chicago to Gallup, N.M.

“He played such beautiful music, but as the people grew old ,” said Agnes Pavocic who, at 88, can’t polka like she used to. “We had many wonderful parties and dances together for years.”

Donald Anthony Lipovac died last Saturday at age 79 and, as an admirer posted online, “The world has definitely lost a great one, but we know he will be playing his heart out in heaven.” His funeral on Thursday packed Holy Family Catholic Church in KCK, where he and his family were lifelong members.

Lipovac, Slovenian by heritage, spent nearly his entire life embracing music and drawing together a stew of ethnicities in celebration of their cultures.

“A Croatian or Slovenian wedding was not a wedding without Lipovac playing,” said Donald Wolf, who knew the musician for decades. “When someone was going to get married, over the last 50 years, they would check with the priest and check to see the hall was available — but first they would check to see if Don Lipovac was available.”

He would play for a couple’s wedding and then again for their 25th anniversary.

Lipovac’s wife of more than 50 years, JoAnn, acted as a manager of sorts over the decades of traveling and recording.

Ron Kalcic, who grew up hearing Lipovac because his parents were boosters, posted on a memorial site that still, whenever he feels down, he pops in a Lipovac CD. “You can’t be sad when listening to a POLKA from Don,” he wrote.

Lipovac played every year at the St. John the Baptist Church festival in KCK.

“It will never be the same,” said Pavocic. “There would be so many out there doing the kolo, just looking forward to his music. It will be a tremendous loss to the community.”

Lipovac also played for the annual festival at Holy Family, a Slovenian parish. He was a regular at the Sugar Creek Slavic festival and at Christmas season tours at the Strawberry Hill Museum.

He was scheduled to play Saturday at the Polski Day celebration at the All Saints Parish in KCK. Instead, he will be remembered at the 4 p.m. polka Mass.

“He was so talented, yet so humble, using the talent God gave him when he started playing the button box at age 3,” posted Sister Jimene Alviani, who knew the Lipovacs from Holy Family.

Lipovac grew up on Northrup Avenue near Sixth Street. The story goes that Lipovac’s grandfather gave him that button-box accordion and the boy immediately took to it while his family sang songs from the old country. He began taking formal lessons at age 7 or 8 and learned the keyboard accordion.

At 16, he won a competition at Municipal Auditorium and went on to appear on the television program “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” a kind of “American Idol” of the early 1950s.

Lipovac earned degrees in music theory and music education from the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He won the American Accordionist Association national championship at Carnegie Hall in 1958 and went on to place fourth at the international competition in Brussels. He also appeared on “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

Lipovac later was elected to the Tamburitzan Hall of Fame by the Tamburitzan Association of America.

“He was such a musician,” said Wolf. “I would just sit there and watch his fingers fly across the keyboard. Unbelievable.

“He would play very simple waltzes and polkas, but for the elite audience he would play some of the most complex music written. He’d even play Macedonian, Bulgarian and Greek music.”

Lipovac also composed more than 500 pieces of music.

In the 1960s Lipovac began teaching young people to play the tambura, a stringed instrument, at St. John’s Catholic School, and he was a mentor to hundreds over the decades.

One of those students was Jim Jaksetic, now of St. Louis.

“He was a gentleman,” said Jaksetic. “He knew how to teach the children. We were all 8, 9 or 10 years old, so you had to have talent to keep the kids interested in what they were doing.”

The Kansas Historical Society in 1989 wrote that his influence on traditional music in the Kansas City area had been profound.

“Because of his involvement, the musical styles of several regions, particularly Slovenia and Croatia, have come together to create a Kansas City style of south Slavic music.”

Lipovac told The Star in 2001 that his goals in life were always to be a concert accordionist and to help preserve the Slovenian and Croatian musical heritage.

“I just hope that of the people I’ve taught, someone will take it to the next generation,” he said.

A group that includes many former students of Lipovac, called Hrvatski Obicaj Tamburaši, is doing just that. Those musicians played at his funeral.

“I feel that we are carrying on exactly in the way he would have wanted,” said group director Rick Mikesic.