M   ost of us have dreams as children about what we'll become when we grow into adulthood.

For some of us it's about becoming a fireman or a cop.

For some it's about writing a best-selling novel, playing professional baseball or making the Olympic team.

For some it's about making a career out of the military or becoming a doctor.

And for some, like Conewago Township resident Jerry Kerper, it was about becoming a star in country music.

Some of us make the big time, most of us don't.

And for those of us who don't, a few of us continue along our dream path by playing sandlot baseball until we're too old to do it anymore, or writing poetry that no one gets to read, or satisfying our "fireman" call by becoming a volunteer firefighter for the community fire company.

Conewago Township resident Jerry Kerper has played the harmonica with some of country music’s greats. He was recently inducted into the Maryland
Conewago Township resident Jerry Kerper has played the harmonica with some of country music's greats. He was recently inducted into the Maryland Country Music Hall of Fame. (Submitted photo)

Same for Kerper. He was recently named to the Maryland Country Music Hall of Fame, he said, and for him that's about as good as it's ever going to get.

But he's OK with that.

Even at age 80, Kerper continues to play his instrument of choice -- the harmonica -- as part of his band, Just Plain Country, at small clubs, fire halls, carnivals, VFWs, American Legion posts, recreation centers and race tracks near and far.

His most recent performance, in fact, was at a restaurant/club called "Yesteryear" in East Berlin last Saturday night. Size of the crowd: 100 people or so, all of whom love the sound of "old" country music, the classic stuff many of us heard 40 and 50 years ago.

Clearly it is not the "big time" of country music. It is, however, where most of the biggest names in country music got their start -- at the bottom of the heap -- and where many of those who aspire to a career in country music continue to play until their dream ends.

For most, that comes sooner rather than later. Not enough money. Too much of a time commitment. Not enough opportunity. No sense of moving onward and upward.

For Kerper, that time hasn't come yet. He continues to play. He says he'll always play, not for the money, but for the pure pleasure of making music people enjoy hearing.

Kerper grew up in Berks County, in a small town called Birdsboro, which had a mostly rural population of fewer than 3,000 people, at a time when the harmonica was considered a toy, not a musical instrument.

"My father didn't want me messing around with music," he said, "because I think he wanted me to concentrate on playing baseball. I was a left-handed pitcher."

But what Kerper really wanted to do was learn to play the harmonica. He used to sit on his grandfather's lap while he played the mouth organ, and that served as his inspiration.

"I started playing the harmonica when I was around 12 years of age," Kerper said, "and by the time I was 16, I was playing the minstrel shows all around Berks County for money. My father didn't want me to play, so I'd have to sneak out of the house to play shows at the Reading Orioles and the Penn Wheelman Shows."

One day, Kerper and a few friends were sitting on the steps of the Birdsboro Post Office playing music, when a post office employee by the name of Hap Naugle came outside -- only this time, instead of chasing them off, he handed Kerper a 10-hole Chromatic (a fancy harmonica) and told him, "If you're going to play a harmonica, you might as well learn to play a good one."

Kerper took it from there. At age 18, while at home on leave from the Air Force, he had a chance to play with the Harmonicats, a well-known group at the time that happened to be performing in Reading. That was all the encouragement Kerper needed to keep playing.

Did he make a lot of money at it? No. He hasn't become ridiculously famous, either.

But it brought him pleasure. And he has played with some of the biggest names in the country music business over the years. Names like: George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Marty Robbins, Marty Stuart and Charlie Pride.

Not bad for a guy who spent his working life as an over-the-road truck driver and regional car hauler, and many of his weekends (for more than five decades) playing country music wherever they'd have him.

It's probably not a career his father would have approved of, Kerper said. "In fact, my buddy and I once had a baseball tryout with a professional team when we were in our late teens. My buddy went; I didn't. It made my father furious. He never got over that."

There's no way of knowing, of course, but his grandfather, William Keller, almost surely would have supported Kerper's choice.

Grandpa's harmonica playing was, after all, Kerper's inspiration.

And almost 70 years later, he's still going strong.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.