Fairport's Harmonica Pete a viral sensation

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Friday, June 7, 2019 - 1:01pm

Pete DuPre is on a mission to make sure Americans remember just what World War II means to history.

“History books fade and so do we,’’ the 96-year-old World War II veteran said. “I want to make sure we stay in the spotlight. I’m a one-man ambassador for World War II vets. I’m certainly not in this for financial reasons. I just enjoy having the chance to honor veterans.”

That one-man campaign, especially recently, has taken the country by storm. The Fairport resident better known as Harmonica Pete has become an internet sensation. May 26, Pete played the national anthem on his harmonica at the U.S. women’s soccer team’s international game against Mexico in New Jersey. ESPN captured the moment on video.

Twenty-Six thousand fans in the stands stood in stunned silence. The video had been viewed by millions even before Pete came home May 27 to play in the Fairport/Perinton Memorial Day parade.


“Something about this performance was different,” said Pete’s daughter Mary Ann DuPre. “This is as big as it gets and you could just feel it in the crowd. It was just utter silence and I swear he played at a different level.”

Mary Ann pointed to a good example of how the video spread on the internet. A few days after it was posted, someone told her the video had been shared 470,000 times on the national bull rider’s association website.

“This is one of the high points of my life,” said Pete, who graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1952 in a GI BIll. “But I can’t stop thinking of the thousands that should be here to hear it.”

Pete was a medical and surgical tech in the Army from 1943-45. He was training during D-Day, but was on hand to help victims of the Battle of the Bulge. He started playing the harmonica in 1933 and his commanders used him to help soldiers keep pace on the 26 out, 26 back marches.

His life changed forever in 1942 while he was going to high school at Edison Tech in Rochester. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and in the process hit the Navy’s warehouse where they stored all their binoculars.

The binoculars were made by Bausch & Lomb and were sent back to Rochester to quickly be fixed or replaced. B&L hired as many high school seniors as they could to work full-time and fill the order.

Pete was hired and worked next to a girl from Franklin High. That turned out to be Jane Szelag, who he would be married to for 70 years.

The couple have five children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Jane, unfortunately, passed away 5 years ago.

The doctors told Mary Ann and her siblings that is would be good for Pete to have an interest because many people that lose a spouse after that long of a marriage don’t live long.

Harmonica Pete was born.

Pete met Fairport’s Jean Kelly and she suggested he get involved with the Greatest Generation Foundation.

The foundation has sent Pete all over the country to play his music. He has gone viral multiple times including in 2015 with a video of him playing on the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor on the 75th anniversary of the attack.


“I believe his relationship with the veterans he plays for is the next thing he is here (on Earth) for,’’ Mary Ann said. “As a medic in World War II, he saw a lot of death. His view of death makes it easier for him to deal with loss.”

The night before Pete played the National Anthem at Perinton VFW Post 8495’s D-Day remembrance June 6, Pete had played in the hospital room of his long-time friend George Haines. The 94-year-old World War II vet died a few hours later.

“Both my mom and dad went through World War I and I went through World War II,’’ Pete said. “I have spent all this time worrying about World War III and when it would start. The generation we created will have to deal with this. That is why no one can be allowed to forget the past.”