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Claremont couple stay in tune for 75 years

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

At a USO dance in Asheville, North Carolina during World War II, Claremont resident Chester “Chet” Jaeger was somewhat successfully holding sheet music in one hand while playing his trumpet with the other. Seeing the poor man struggle, a pretty USO hostess named Eileen Deem came to the rescue, holding the printed music so that Mr. Jaeger could finish performing the tune.

Later that evening the two were chatting at a table and, as Mr. Jaeger recalled, they found they had a lot in common including music. “As far as I am concerned, it was love at first sight,” Mr. Jaeger said. She was not supposed to date the men she met at the USO, but several dates and a week or ten days later, Mr. Jaeger, who was a weather specialist trainee in the U.S. Army, and Ms. Deem were engaged.

As Mr. Jaeger, 96, recalls, he popped the question rather informally. “When this war is over do you think we should get married?” he asked. Ms. Deem, now Eileen Jaeger, 95, agreed.

Fast forward to January 13, 2021 when Chet and Eileen Jaeger celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in the Claremont home they have shared for more than 50 years. Due to the pandemic, they were not able to host any of their many friends and family, but celebrated nonetheless on a Zoom call.

Five years ago the couple celebrated their 70th anniversary, with 28 direct decedents including the couple’s five children, Barbara Anna Jaeger Cash, Jeri Juanita Jaeger, April Doreen Jaeger Floyd, George Elbert Jaeger and Holly Virginia Jaeger Proulx. A total of 46 relatives attended that fete.

Anyone who has been in Claremont a few years undoubtedly knows Mr. Jaeger as the longtime frontman of the traditional jazz band, Night Blooming Jazzmen, which has performed at concerts in the park for decades. Mr. Jaeger is also well known as a math teacher at Chaffey High and part of the brass ensemble that performed carols every Christmas Eve from 1941 to 2017 at Claremont United Church of Christ.

Ms. Jaeger is also an accomplished musician who provided free music education to Claremont school children during her 25 years teaching at Mountain View Elementary School. She grew up a “farm girl” in Parkersburg, West Virginia and was raised by grandparents because both of her parents were confined to a tuberculosis hospital. She loved the chores of farming, pitching hay and milking cows, and learned to drive on the family’s tractor. Her parents were able to leave the hospital for an afternoon to attend a wedding and never went back, but instead packed the family up and moved to Asheville.

Before she met her future husband, Ms. Jaeger earned an associates degree from Brevard College graduating in June of 1944. She later attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Cal State Los Angeles where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential. According to Mr. Jaeger, she was very good at sports and loved to dance.

Mr. Jaeger was born in Columbia, Missouri where his father was a graduate student. As a young man, the senior Mr. Jaeger was part of a vaudeville act on riverboats in Saint Louis where they played banjos, tap danced, sang and told corny jokes, some of which the younger Mr. Jaeger still tells. In Columbia, his parents operated a boarding house and also played piano and banjo so, “I was hearing jazz before I was born,” Mr. Jaeger said. His father’s career as a mathematics professor first took the family to New Orleans and then to Claremont where Chester George Jaeger took a position as the head of the math department of Pomona College in 1931. During childhood Mr. Jaeger got his first trumpet, which he loved from day one, and put his first jazz band together when he was a junior at Claremont High.

During his freshman year at Pomona, Mr. Jaeger enlisted to be a military weatherman with the Army Air Corps. However, that program was saturated with trainees so he eventually signed on to help encode weather reports using Morse Code, which was fortuitous because the program took him to Asheville and that fateful night at the USO.

Following a brief courtship, including a train trip to Claremont so Eileen could meet Mr. Jaeger’s parents, Chet was shipped overseas and through a wild adventure that included flying over the Himalayas. He ended up in the Chinese city of Xichang delivering weather reports by telegraph from an American airfield.

“The good part about it was that I did not have a gun and we were never shot at, the bad part was it was really boring but we managed,” he said.

During his stay in Xichang he had an audience with Chairman of the National Government of the Republic of China Chiang Kai-shek and his wife. “We are probably the only American servicemen who ever had tea with them,” he said.

After his release from the military he returned to Asheville to join his future bride. Shortly after his arrival the senior Jaegers traveled from Saint Louis where they were visiting relatives to meet Eileen’s family. “Somebody said, ‘as long as everyone is here let’s have a wedding,’” Mr. Jaeger recalls. A case of blood poisoning Mr. Jaeger contracted from a scratched finger nearly derailed their plans, but he got a prescription for a new drug called penicillin which quickly cured him. “We got married just after Sunday morning church service at the Methodist Church,” he said.

The only excitement during the wedding was when Mr. Jaeger went to put the ring on Ms. Jaeger’s hand, but she quickly withdrew it. “I thought ‘Oh my lord she has changed her mind,’” he said. But in fact Eileen had extended the wrong hand.

Soon after, the couple drove a beat up 1938 Chevrolet to Claremont where Mr. Jaeger finished his education at Pomona.

At first they lived in his parents’ guest room, where their first child Barbara was born in March of 1947. Later they moved into veterans’ housing at Claremont Men’s College where the couple’s second baby Jeri was born in September of 1948. They lived briefly in Azusa while Mr. Jaeger began his teaching career, but soon the young family bought a house on Green Street in 1950, where they stayed until they outgrew that home with the birth of April, George and Holly. Mr. Jaeger hired a contractor to build the family a large home in north Claremont in 1964. They cleared the lemon trees off the lot during spring break and built the home over the summer, with Mr. Jaeger doing the plumbing and electrical work. He hired a professional to build the chimney because, “a poorly built fireplace is a pain forever.”

Sacramento had the world’s largest traditional jazz festival, and in 1975 they asked jazz clubs to send bands to the festival. “So we put together seven guys from our local jazz club and we went up to Sacramento to play. It was supposed to be an ad hoc band but we were very well received and were having a good time so we started booking jobs,” Mr. Jaeger said. Eventually they were working 125 days per year on average.

“The jazz band was so busy and we were having so much fun that I retired [from teaching] when I was 60,” Mr. Jaeger said.

Eventually the band began to outlive the fans of traditional jazz, but the Night Blooming Jazzmen were still doing gigs up until the pandemic hit in March.

Asked about the secret to long marriage Ms. Jaeger said simply, “ We just love each other,” to which Mr. Jaeger added, “It was love at first sight and it never quit.” Mr. Jaeger also said they learned to give and take and had very few serious arguments.

“Eileen and I have had a wonderful 76 and a half years, 75 years of marriage and a wonderful life together, with the music, the church and the family.”

Though the couple both use walkers and have some trouble getting around, Mr. Jaeger is looking forward to returning to performing with his band.

“I do sit here everyday on the davenport and play my horn for a little while to keep my chops going in case things open up.”


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