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Wonderful Former Melrose Educator: Bob Bachelder, at 89; led dual lives in classroom, on bandstand

Not so long ago, fully credentialed and deeply qualified administrators and teachers defined our school system. It was an honor to work for him. This gentleman was at the top of the list, and may he rest in peace:
Bob Bachelder, at 89; led dual lives in classroom, on bandstand

By Bryan Marquard Globe Staff May 12, 2015
Mr. Bachelder, director of the Bob Bachelder Totem Pole Orchestra, looked at a collection of photographs and mementos from a bygone era.Mr. Bachelder, director of the Bob Bachelder Totem Pole Orchestra, looked at a collection of photographs and mementos from a bygone era.

On Feb. 8, 1964, Bob Bachelder led his big band in playing the final tune at the Totem Pole Ballroom. A gem in the crown of Greater Boston’s big-band venues, the Totem Pole sat along Route 128 in Newton, next to the Charles River. Couples could take a streetcar to the Norumbega Park stop, walk to the ticket booth, and head inside, where young men met the strict dress code by renting ties for a quarter and jackets for a dollar.

“There were no tears shed; it was just the end of a ballroom,” Mr. Bachelder said of that final night during an interview for “Boston The Way It Was,” a 1995 WGBH-TV program. “We just stopped playing,” he said, adding: “That was the end of the Totem Pole.”

The ballroom burned the following year and a hotel now is at the site. That was not the end of the musical memories, however. Mr. Bachelder turned his attention to education, rising through the Melrose school system to become associate superintendent, but he kept playing in small ensembles on the side. He formed his band again after retiring from school administration in the late 1980s, when he found older audiences eager to recapture their past and a younger generation drawn to the allure of a bygone era.

“People like the big-band music today for the same reasons they liked it back then,” he told the Globe in 1995. “It’s romantic and you can dance to it.”

Mr. Bachelder, a pianist and bandleader whose lush arrangements formed the musical backdrop for many couples falling in love in the 1950s and early ’60s, died of complications from a heart attack and pneumonia May 5 in Lahey Hospital and Medical Center. He was 89 and lived in Reading.

There were two Robert Bachelders, the musician and the educator, and for the most part they were never in one room at the same time. “He really did keep those two lives separate,’’ said his wife, Elaine. “Many, many people in the school system didn’t know he was a musician, and vice versa, but that’s the way he wanted it.”

Generations of Melrose students and their parents remember Dr. Bachelder, a junior high school English teacher who became a guidance counselor, an interim principal at Winthrop Elementary School, and an administrator. For big-band aficionados, though, he was Bob Bachelder, a drummer, pianist, arranger, and leader of the Totem Pole’s house orchestra.

“You know, I never set out to be a band leader, but fate took a hand and that’s what I ended up doing,” he said in the 1995 interview, adding: “I never set out to be an assistant superintendent, either, but I got drafted by the School Committee.”

Mr. Bachelder brought more than musicianship to the bandstand, according to Carl Braun, who died in 2010. He had owned the Commodore Ballroom in Lowell and hired Mr. Bachelder before his musicians became the Totem Pole’s house band.

“I can’t play a single musical note, but I know talent when I see it,” Braun said of Mr. Bachelder in a 1995 Globe interview. “Not only could he play several instruments, but he was very handsome. His charm was a big attraction for the ladies and that was important, because places like the Commodore often had a ‘stag only’ rule. That meant if I wanted to get the guys, first I had to attract the young ladies.”

The younger of two siblings, Robert E. Bachelder was born and grew up in Lowell. He was encouraged in his musical pursuits by both parents, the former Gertrude Reardon, a bookkeeper, and Frank Bachelder. “I started on the drums,” Mr. Bachelder told the Globe in 1997. “My father worked as a Secret Service agent, but in his younger years he had been a drummer.”

His mother augmented the drum playing with lessons on the piano, which became Mr. Bachelder’s main focus. He left Malden Catholic High School to serve as a pilot in the Army Air Forces during World War II and played music professionally after returning home.

Mr. Bachelder’s dual background in percussion and piano informed his approach to arranging music his orchestra performed during its heyday, and again decades later. “We’re not Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk,” he said in 1997. “We don’t play that sugary kind of music. We’re much more straight-ahead. We know how to get people to dance.”

He graduated from Lowell State College with a bachelor’s degree in elementary and music education in 1954, the year before his orchestra became the Totem Pole’s house band. He received a master’s in counseling from Tufts University and a doctorate in education administration from Boston University. Mr. Bachelder, whose first marriage ended in divorce, brought his orchestra to venues from Hampton Beach to Rhode Island.

He met Elaine Pray when he was an administrator in Melrose and she was a kindergarten teacher, though she first saw him years earlier. They married in 1985. “He always said to me, ‘The reason I reformed the band, Elaine, was I wanted you to hear it.’ I think there may have been more to it than that,” she recalled, laughing and adding that she had “danced to his band at the Totem Pole when I was 16.”

Mr. Bachelder formerly served as treasurer of the Massachusetts branch of the National Kidney Foundation, his wife said, and he also played tennis into his mid-80s. Music, however, consumed much of his time.

“He enjoyed bringing musical memories to the older folks who would come to his concerts, but there was also another side to that,” his wife said. “He loved bringing this music to a newer generation — younger people who perhaps had not grown up with it but were developing a new appreciation for the swing music, the big-band music of the ’30s and the ’40s.”

A service has been held for Mr. Bachelder, who in addition to his wife leaves a son, Robert L. of Medford; two daughters, Katherine of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Susan Pierce of Billerica; a stepson, Craig Hall of Reading; and 10 grandchildren.

“The world will remember his public accomplishments, for sure, but of course, we as a family will remember him as a gentleman in the true sense of the word, a gentle man who loved his friends and family and cared for us,” his wife said. “That is what we will go on treasuring, never taking away from his musical and educational accomplishments.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at