When it comes to his support of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, alumnus Bill Scott has never been one to toot his own horn.
But, as the philanthropist marks his 91st birthday today, it’s about time that Husker Nation give the man props for being a great horn blower.
A polka maven today, Bill Scott learned to play the trumpet at the age of 10. Through the years, he’s played in many venues — from large Polish festivals in Chicago and Milwaukee to a tiny bar in Leshara, Nebraska — bringing musical (and a little dancing) joy to thousands.
It’s really an incredible story. The man who earned a fortune being Warren Buffett’s right-hand person at Berkshire Hathaway continues to entertain people as he heads into his 10th decade.
“If you spend time with my dad, you realize he’s not a conversationalist,” said John Scott, the oldest of Bill and Ruth Scott’s three sons and a fellow trumpet player. “He’s a quiet guy. He just loves to perform — to get up on stage. He absolutely loves music and singing. He practices all the time.”
Bill Scott mostly specializes in polka music, but he can also play Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger songs. He can also belt out classics such as “Proud Mary” and “Sloop John B.”
In Omaha, Bill and John Scott were key members of a legendary polka band called The Polonairs. In recent years, they have partnered with band members of a group called Sheelytown. These days, they typically play at The Belvedere (Polish Home) in Papillion and the St. Stanislaus Polish Festival in South Omaha.
View a song from a 2019 concert by The Polonairs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
John Szalewski, the accordion player for The Polonairs and Sheelytown, said Bill Scott is a professional musician who plays with passion.
“He’s a perfectionist. He always does it right,” Szalewski said. “Bill hasn’t lost anything in playing the trumpet. He’s still on top of his game and is 100% accurate in his Polish pronunciation.”
John Scott said his father’s passion for doing things right is exemplified by Bill Scott taking Polish classes in the 1960s to learn how to pronounce the Polish words in polka songs correctly.
In the 1970s (before the advent of email), Szalewski said Bill Scott used to mail him letters.
“He’d send new songs, cassettes, song lists, lyrics. You name it,” Szalewski said. “He’d tell us to practice the new songs and be ready to go when we play on Saturday. Today, Bill uses email to demonstrate that same passion. He was a top-notch band leader.”
Amazingly, Bill Scott struggles to read music.
“Almost everything he plays is by ear,” John Scott said. “Everything is based on memory. He figures out what keys to play it in. He loves to do songs with a lot of soul to them. There’s a Polish polka song — ‘I’ll Be Back’ — about a soldier going to war and hoping to come back. Bill does a great job with this song. We usually use it as our last song of the night.”
Playing the trumpet demands breath control as well as finger dexterity and tongue skills.
“Your fingers and tongue have to be aligned,” John Scott said. “You have to move the tongue pretty fast to match your fingers. It keeps your mind sharp.”
In 2005, Bill Scott suffered a serious spinal cord injury when he was on a golf trip. Following the injury, he was unable to play the trumpet, but through his hard work and dedication in rehab, he eventually was able to regain his trumpet abilities.
Although Bill Scott is a man of few words, Szalewski said he makes them count.
“When Bill says something, it matters. It means something. He’s like my second father.”
Playing the trumpet is far from Bill Scott’s only talent. He still plays golf three times a week, and earlier this year he accomplished a difficult golfing feat — shooting his age — while wintering in California.
And on campus, the generosity of Bill and Ruth Scott helps Huskers succeed in the classroom every day. At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, some of the Scotts’ contributions have led to the creation of the Dinsdale Learning Commons, the gnotobiotic mouse facility, Children’s Justice Clinic, Teacher Scholars Academy, Barbara Hibner Soccer Stadium, and the Cherish Nebraska exhibition on the fourth floor of Morrill Hall.
“Enjoy your special day, Bill. We can’t thank you and Ruth enough for what you have given our university and our state,” said Brian Hastings, president and chief executive officer of the NU Foundation. “Here is to many, many more.”