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Susquehanna Life

Rudy Gelnett Passes Away at 95 -leaves over $6M to his community

Dec 10, 2010 02:36PM ● By Erica Shames

If it’s as lucky as Selinsgrove, every small town in America has one - a man or woman, a long-time citizen, who becomes part of the very fabric of the community. Their knowledge, their caring, their interest, is what makes the small town truly a community.

Francis Rine “Rudy” Gelnett was just that person for Selinsgrove, a Central Pennsylvania town of about 5,000 souls hard by the Susquehanna River. There’s hardly any who remembers Selinsgrove without Rudy. His vast knowledge of the town and its citizenry was nonpareil, and he shared it willingly with those on historical quests.
Rudy’s early life was difficult. He was born on September 12, 1915, to Ella and Francis Gelnett. Rudy hardly knew his father, Francis, who died in his mid- 20s in the 1918 influenza pandemic. The senior Gelnett left Rudy, an infant son, an older son, and a pregnant wife in her mid-20s—with an uncertain future. Thanks to the support of his maternal grandmother, the proverbial wolf was kept away from the door. His mother not only had to endure the loss of her husband, the son born after his father’s death lived only a few weeks. The other brother died of pneumonia while still a child.

Rudy (still known as Francis) did well in school. Like many youngsters of his era, he was given piano lessons. He took only a few. Unlike many who simply stopped, Rudy progressed as a self-taught musician. Confirming your faithful correspondent’s theory that “you either have the music gene or you don’t,” Rudy also taught himself the guitar, banjo, and several brass instruments. Music would become a major part of his life.

Well-rounded, Rudy took part in debating and athletics. He lettered multiple times in basketball and track & field. In track & field—long before the slingshot fiberglass poles—Rudy cleared over 12’, when the world record was under 14’. He continued pole vaulting at Susquehanna University, where he matriculated in 1933. So highly thought of was Rudy at SU that he was elected class president multiple times, student body president, fraternity president, and editor of the college newspaper.

Continuing his musical proclivity (he had formed an orchestra while still in high school) he organized Rudy Gelnett & His Collegians. By then, he was known to most as “Rudy.” Like many I assumed, since his middle initial was R that his middle name was Rudolph, or something close. Not so. While in high school, Rudy—like much of the rest of the nation—was taken by crooner Rudy Vallee. He raved about Vallee to the extent that people started calling him Rudy. It stayed with him the rest of his life.

He was very proud of the fact that in the summers of 1936 and 1937 his “combo” was the first Pennsylvania college band to play on trans-Atlantic liners, the H.M.S Georgic and U.S.S. Aquitania—“we played two sets a day, over and back, both times.”

After graduation, he taught in the Union City schools, near Erie, PA. While there, he played in area bands—“usually rhythm guitar, some piano.”

World War II came along and found Rudy as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He trained in England as a communications officer on a beach landing craft (LST). In the summer of 1944, he landed on the south of France. It was a combat zone, but Rudy always downplayed the situation. However, anytime Nazi troops are shooting at you, it is serious. He was also “called back” during the Korean War for a total of seven years active duty— and remained in the naval reserves.

In 1947—after taking a master’s from Bucknell, Rudy secured a position teaching business subjects at Shillington High, near Reading, PA. It was here that one of his students was a young man with a knack for cartooning—John Updike, later a writer of the stature of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, and Roth. With the dry sense of humor that endeared Rudy to all of us, he would say— hand to his mouth, head turned to the side—“I taught Updike writing; TYPEwriting, that is.” Rudy and Updike continued a life-long friendship. Updike always made sure Rudy attended reunions of the Shillington Class of ‘50.

He retired from teaching in 1959 and devoted fulltime to his orchestra, which seemingly played somewhere every night of the week—Penn State, Bucknell, and Susquehanna proms and fraternity parties, high school proms, country club dances, weekends at fraternal organizations and veterans posts—anywhere there was a call for good, danceable music. He played solo piano at Susquehanna Homecoming and Alumni Day luncheons for fortysomething consecutive years.

Rudy and his sturdy Columbia bicycle, which he continued to ride until a few weeks before his death, were ubiquitous in town. In fact, because of his generosity toward the community, there is talk of having it “bronzed” to be displayed at “the commons.” A fitting and welldeserved tribute…

Rudy never married, probably at the insistence of his mother. But he did have a companion for more than 30 years, and they traveled extensively. He and Mona saw much of the world—British Isles, continental Europe, South America, Hawaii, and many of the “lower 48.”

When he moved to Grayson View assisted living facility a few years ago, he played piano every evening— more than 800 consecutive. For many residents, it was the best hour of their day. His repertoire was endless. This is attested to by the notebook fellow Grayson View resident Carolyn Burns kept of the songs he played nightly. There was page-after-page of song titles. And seldom was there a “repeat.” Carolyn especially enjoyed “The Red River Valley,” a request she made occasionally. Rudy, nor anyone else, knew the significance of the cowboy opus until Carolyn’s passing, when it was revealed that for Carolyn and Bob it was “our song.”

Rudy’s effect on and legacy to Selinsgrove will be long remembered—as it should be.

God speed, old friend!
- by Jim Campbell, December 8th, 2010, courtesy of
Jim Campbell can be reached for comment at cmpbellj@

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