Walter Finlayson’s Navy Baton Still Making Music

Honoring Sailors at the Battle of Midway

Honoring Sailors at the Battle of Midway:


Thanks to the initiative and respect of current Navy Band Archivist, Mike Bayes, my father’s Navy baton was rescued from decades of dusty disuse. Instead of languishing in a storage carton or even in a Green Room display case, this lightweight baton was used to conduct two formal Navy performances in our nation’s capital in the summer of 2016: a wreathe-laying for fallen sailors on Memorial Day and to commemorate the Battle of Midway.  My father would be amazed!  We are deeply honored by the meticulous respect of the conductor, Michael Bayes.

Artistic Subjects and Styles: A

(From “Something Foxy” Article, 1998)

Walter began painting as a hobby and artistic outlet in 1950, but plunged full time into oil painting when he retired from teaching school at age 55. “Sometimes I do abstract, sometimes realistic landscape–whatever mood I’m in,” he admitted.  Spending summers near the Belgrade Lakes near Rome, Maine, he has a pristine lake with beaver, owl and loons, plus a lovely mountain, with gorgeous sunsets reflected in the lake for inspiration. “Other times I make stuff up in my head; it seems to work better than having a still life in front of me. I know what a flower looks like, so I can visualize a bunch of them in a vase. I’m very unobservant, but when a scene hits me, I can recall it and easily move the tree or add cloud formations to make the painting Work,” he explained.

    He works using mental patterns, as opposed to pure realism so popular in current art.  “I think in terms of Light and Dark for maximum contrast. I saw the white pattern in that Provincetown painting and that is what I went for–whereas reality would have killed the painting right away.”

Katonah’s Music Man

Finding work in his home town after his Naval service was no easy matter. Once again Destiny stepped in when Walt was showing off Katonah to his war bride.  On the village sidewalk they ran into Walt’s former PE coach, who had become the principal of the High School, Mr. Edwin Haseltine.  Right then and there Hazzy offered Walt the job of Music Teacher, since the previous fellow had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Walter loved the job of directing the concert band and orchestra. “I wrote  a lot of music in those early years: marches and instrumental trios, because I had kids to try them out.  I was quick to learn what high school students could or could not do.” There was more incentive to compose since he knew he had a captive group to  perform.

After producing an original portfolio of music for band instruments he enlisted the aid of his former college buddy, Arnold Broido, who worked for the famous British publishers in NY City, Boosey and Hawkes.  This outfit offered him $250 outright, or a choice of cash paid on a royalty basis.  “Thank heavens I took my chances on the royalties, because 40 years later, as a member of the prestigious organization, ASCAP, I’m still getting them from the US and abroad.”

Some of his best sellers were the marches, “Storm King” and “Thunder Song.” Both college and professional bands have performed his music on vinyl . He got a big kick out of hearing one march played at a Tournament of Roses Parade; his daughter heard one of his marches played by the wandering Disneyland Band in Hometown Square.

Marriage and the Return of the Native Son

During the  time he was stationed with the Navy in Rhode Island  Walter met his wife-to-be, Sylvia, at a band member’s party in Fall River–just a half an hour from Newport. (The proximity of Fall River girls to the Naval base greatly facilitated romance and marriage among the young people.)  “I was playing piano when the doorbell rand and in came Sylvia. The first thing she noticed about me was my back–and that I was playing piano.  I liked her right away when she complimented my keyboard style, but I thought she was the host’s date at first. She told me that she wasn’t, so we spent most of the evening in each other’s company. I’ve often thought how it was Destiny that lead me to that party.  We were married in Newport in June 1943.

      Since the mid 1930’s Walter has lived in Katonah: on New Street, on High Street, on Orchard Lane and now on Pleasant Street (dead end house).  He spent his last two years of high school before John Jay existed at the old K-12 school where the Firehouse is now located.   He chose Ithaca College, where he majored in Music; after graduation he taught Music at Gilbertsville High School near Oneonta, but he hated the school which was nothing at all like his Katonah High School. When he got a love letter from Uncle Sam, advising him to pick an armed service or join the Army, he enlisted in the Navy like his father in WW1.  In fact, his Honda’s license plate proudly displays the words, USS ALASKA, on the plate holder.

Walt’s Life aboard the ALASKA

I spent three and a half years on the CB-1, called the USS ALASKA, and distinctly remember “air mattress drill,” an activity which was promoted by the health officer.  He had us secure our mattresses on deck once a month to air them out. It was hot down where we slept and we’d sweat a lot, so it undoubtedly smelled bad below decks, but it was still a pain to lug those things up on deck.”

During non-combat hours Walt passed the time writing poetry, sketching, making his own Navy shank and of course writing jazz arrangements for the band to play.  With a couple non-gymnastic buddies he would hide in the boiler room to avoid Happy Hour and tap the overhead steam pipe to brew instant hot chocolate unofficially. Calisthenics were definitely not his thing!

In Okinawa harbor the battleship West Virginia was sunk right next to the Alaska, because the Japanese didn’t get the word in time that the war was over.  Walt said that he could actually see the faces of the Kamakazi pilots– they were so close! So again Walter was on the right ship.