Along the Way: George Rosenkrans

I parked at the entrance to Penfield Cemetery and stepped out of the vehicle into the shaded cemetery that the sun had yet to find. Looking at the steep hillside before me, I realized I should have brought climbing gear to ascend to the grave I sought. The graves were placed on narrow ledges cut out of the hillside that were barely wider than the grave itself. Even the roadway that clung to the hillside seemed steep.

To be honest, had I not talked to Tom, a friend who lives in the region, I would never have visited the cemetery. On two previous visits, I had thought the roadway leading to the cemetery was a private driveway. After he explained that it was the entranceway, I made a detour to visit the cemetery while on the way to search of elk.

The journey up the roadway was a journey in itself as the hillside seemed to grow steeper with each step. I finally found the flat I needed and made my way carefully across the hillside to the modern-looking tombstone of a music composer who has been forgotten by most despite having created more than two hundred band pieces. The marker read “George Rosenkrans / (Composer) / Jan 17, 1881 – Aug. 18, 1955 / He Gave His All to Music.”

George Rosenkrans was born January 17, 1881 in a rented shack that stood along the railroad tracks passing through Penfield. He was the oldest child of Allen and Edith Rosenkrans. George learned to appreciate music at an early age. His father worked a number of jobs, but the most important was the Music Director for the Penfield Methodist Church. Rosenkrans had a natural talent for music and under his father’s direction, George sang in the church choir and learned to play the organ. He also played baritone horn in the Penfield Town Band and would later become a conductor of the band.

George’s father had composed a number of hymns for the local church, and George was soon following in his father’s footsteps. At the age of seventeen George had written his first musical composition and by his early twenties, he was writing six to eight fully orchestrated pieces a year. At the height of his music career, in many newspapers, George was referred to as “The Pennsylvania March King,” recognizing his musical abilities.

When the music publishing business dried up in the 1920s, he focused on writing for local bands and many of his later pieces were dedicated to them. Sadly, even when he was at his pinnacle of success, George sold most of his music for less than fifty cents — many of his later pieces were merely given away to those willing to play his compositions.

A number of Rosenkrans’ compositions are still known to this day, including “Immortal Heroes,” “My Lady Lindy,” “5th Regiment March,” “Our Glorious Flag,” and “Triumphant Battalions.” Of these pieces, “Immortal Heroes” is probably the best-known. The dirge, or funeral hymn, has been played at the funerals of German President Konrad Adenauer, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and United States Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

Rosenkrans never left his place of birth, remaining in the same house, even after the death of his parents. Though he stayed in his childhood home, he never took care of the house and the building fell apart around him – at one point, George was sleeping under newspapers in a corner that did not leak. Those visiting him often brought food because George never seemed to have any in the house.

In 1942, Rosenkrans’ neighbors convinced him to move into a boarding house, but by 1949, he was living once again in the shack. His neighbors again convinced him to move out, this time he took a room with a lady in Butler. On August 18, 1955 George passed away at the age of seventy-four.

Despite having composed more than two hundred pieces of music, Rosenkrans died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Penfield Cemetery. According to sources, only fourteen people attended his funeral. Eighteen years later, those who remembered George Rosenkrans finally provided his resting place in the Penfield Cemetery with a headstone.

I finished paying my respects to the mostly forgotten and unrecognized composer before I made my way carefully down the hillside, leaving him to rest on the steep slope.

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