Photo of Al Hesselbart in China

Al Hesselbart: Museum curator starts new life as a performer

features go-getters Mar 30, 2022

Al Hesselbart has done a lot of things in his life. He was a police officer, Boy Scout camp director, salesman, historian and museum manager. But, he was in his 70s before Al followed his heart to become a country music performer.

"I graduated from Michigan State University in the early 1960s. But, because I did not want to go to Vietnam, I became a police officer and eventually a faculty member at the police academy in Lansing, Mich.," he explained.

He enjoyed law enforcement, but his new wife was more than a little concerned about Al’s safety in a tumultuous society that had seen multiple assassinations and riots.

Because Al had supported his way through college by working summers at a Boy Scout camp, when he ended his stint as a police officer, Al joined the Boy Scouts of America and ran their Michigan summer camps for the next 13 years. However, the recession of 1980 forced the Boy Scouts to downsize more than 1,200 staff members around the country, including Al.

"I found myself unemployed with three children who wanted to be fed three times every day. Unfortunately, the early 80s was not a good time to find employment," he explained. "Eventually, I found a job selling imported automobiles on full commission."

Working nights and weekends caused a lot of stress in his marriage. Eventually, his wife left, leaving Al to raise their three children by himself.

A short time later, the dealership changed management and he found himself looking for work again. Al was 52 years old when he stumbled upon a job in Elkhart, Ind., working as a museum curator for the Recreation Vehicle/Manufactured Housing Hall of Fame. It was a job he held for two decades.

"That was, by far, the most favorite time of my life," said Al. "I became really interested in the RV industry’s history. In the process of learning about it, I became somewhat world famous and wrote for magazines and spoke at RV events as far away as China."

Change of scenery

When Al retired on his 20th anniversary with the museum, he was ready for a change of scenery.

"After living 70 years in Michigan and Northern Indiana, I had seen all the snow I ever wanted to see," said Al. "I moved to an absolutely enjoyable RV park in central Florida. It was an area where country music was overwhelmingly popular."

There were at least 25 country music jam session every week and often three or four choices of groups to listen to in concert every day.

"I was single, retired and didn't want to be bored, so I started attending those sessions one day," he explained. "For many years, I had been involved in my church choir. I probably knew 70% of the songs being performed at the jam sessions, so I started singing along."

After a few years, since he knew the songs well enough to sing along, Al was given lyrics and told he was now officially part of a band.

"I resisted at first because I had problems with my throat and diaphragm, which prevented me from singing especially well," he explained. "But a neighbor lady from the same RV park looked me straight in the eye and said, 'You read the Bible. You know what it says about making a joyful noise. It doesn't say anything about quality.'

"So I was drafted into performing that day," he added. "I figured I would need to look like a musician, so I bought a very unusual guitar and tried learning how to play. Fortunately, I played with a talented group of professional musicians who covered me up pretty well."

For a while, Al ran a Sunday afternoon jam session that focused exclusively on Gospel music. Although the group became popular, eventually, he and the musicians went in different directions.

"Now I'm a solo performer who sings and plays an acoustic guitar. There are no wires or microphones. It's just a bunch of people sitting in a circle playing songs and singing," said Al. "It's more enjoyable than I ever imagined it could be."

He likes acoustic music much more than amplified sound. When 15 players with electric instruments were on stage, and each one connected to an amplifier, the music became a wall of noise that rocked the house.

"There were two or three musicians who had to be the loudest and it worked to drown out the rest of us," he explained. "So I went the other direction, which I've found is very popular as well. I enjoy the living daylights out of playing acoustic music. And it beats the heck out of sitting in my old motorhome playing solitaire all day."

Prior to COVID, Al would perform seven or eight times a week. While the restrictions put a hamper on that, he's performing at least three times a week as life gets back to normal.

Learning a new skill

To embrace his new life as a country musician, Al had to learn how to play a guitar. He purchased what he called a Martin backpacker's guitar, which is one-third the size of a typical guitar. It's really lightweight and easier for his arthritic fingers to play.

"Let's qualify that and say I pretend to play. I tune the guitar like a dobro and play it with a steel bar instead of my fingers," he explained. "If I just thumb-strum the notes, it cuts the volume of my guitar in half and nobody hears me making mistakes. But it looks good and, to the audience, it looks like I'm part of the band."

Al had a couple of professionals coach him as well.

"How many people go out at 75 years of age, buy their first instrument and pretend to play it?" he asked. "A lady I knew from my time at the museum lives in the area. She taught me the very basics of playing this instrument."

Life as a single

The RV park Al lives in is exclusively for older, single adults. While it's not an extremely friendly park, he said it is a very social community.

"There is some type of activity every day," Al explained. "The 55- to 65-year-olds go on hikes, bicycling, backpacking and things like that. There are also 16 kayaks to use on local streams and lakes.

"When you're 80, you don't do those things. At least I don’t," he added. "While the youngsters go off on their adventures, my friends and I use bicycles or electric bikes to take shorter trips where we don't pedal as hard and may even rely on our thumbs to activate a motor."

As an avid fisherman who participated in several Midwest bass tournaments, Al owns a functional bass boat. Even though it hasn't seen a lake in more than three years, that may change soon.

"We have a lot of open water and lakes down here. People tell me that if I'm not going to do anything with it, at least I have to put my boat in a lake just to wash off the bottom," said Al. "I'm going to charge the batteries and tune it up just to see if it's still a real boat.

"There are several lakes within 90 minutes of my home where professional Bassmasters tournaments take place," he added. "So there are plenty of opportunities to teach this boat to swim again, if I just get off my butt and do it."

Not waiting to die

Al recently sent his daughter, who works as a registered nurse, a photo of him on his bicycle.

"In spite of her worst fears, I wanted her to know that I'm not just sitting here waiting to die," he explained. "But there are a lot of people here who do that.

"They pull in here with their RV, back it into the site, plug it into power and water, but never come outside," he added. "It's sad to watch. They are people from all walks of life who live like hermits just waiting to die.

"I can still get involved in my church, put my boat in the water or ride my bike," he added. "To stay healthy, I actually ride my pedal bike three or four miles several times every week. As we age and things don't work as well as we'd like them to, there are still ways we can still enjoy an active lifestyle without exerting ourselves too much."

Using information he gathered about the RV industry, Al wrote two books after turning 50, each of which sold thousands of copies. His first was titled "The Dumb Things Sold Just Like That" and recounts the beginning of the RV industry as it started during the Great Depression.

The second book was about Elkhart, where many RV manufacturers and supply firms are headquartered. Titled "RV Capital of the World: A Fun-Filled Indiana History," it explores how the industry grew from ideas nurtured by a few individuals into an empire now generating billions of dollars in sales every year.

No regrets

Al said he wasn't entirely confident he was making the right decision when he sold everything he had in Indiana and Michigan before moving to Florida.

"I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I discovered a whole new lifestyle. It's a very enjoyable way to live, if you allow yourself to do it," he explained.

"If there is something you know you want to do, people aren't going to come looking for you, you just have to decide to do it," said Al. "I didn't even know the RV industry existed when I became the manager of the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum at the age of 52.

"I didn't know anything about managing museums or about RVs,” he added. "But, five years later, I was traveling the country and the world telling stories about the RV industry and the RV lifestyle. It was the most pleasurable time of my entire wage-earning career.

"Don't put yourself in a box and say because I'm a carpenter, I am always going to be a carpenter because there is nothing else out there," he explained. "Maybe it's a hobby or a job opportunity. But the two most enjoyable things I've done in my life are things I started after turning 50."

"I could have just sat in the museum and dusted old books and RVs, or I could have learned something new by studying about the history of the RV and manufactured housing industries," said Al. "I don’t want to be a has-been in anything. I already lost many friends who were younger than me. Life is a terminal disease. Don't let it take you before you're ready to go."

To connect with Al, visit his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/al.hesselbart.

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