ST. JOSEPH — It’s been just seven months since central Illinois country music legend Marvin Lee Flessner had his left leg amputated.
“It was tough,” Flessner said of the decision he and his 66-year-old wife, Elaine, had to make quickly to save his life.
But thanks to good doctors, good medicine, good therapists and above all, good music, the 89-year-old rural man from St. Joseph continues to touch the hearts of legions of his fans.
“I’m stuck with the wheelchair,” Flessner said. “At Philo, they just take the wheelchair and put me on stage.”
A little background for those who might not be familiar with the Champaign County native.
Flessner was born in 1933 to Ekke and Katie Flessner and grew up on a farm north of St. Joseph, where he still lives.
Flessner spent most of his life cultivating the same land that is now worked by his son Darrin Flessner. He and Elaine also have a daughter, Sheri Leyrer, and another son, Bryan Flessner, who recently had his 15 seconds of fame for raising Trumpet the Bloodhound, who just became the first Bloodhound to win Best in Show at Westminster. Kennel Club Dog Show.
They have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A piano at his school first attracted Flessner to music.
“I just started singing and my mother encouraged me,” he said. “When I was 14, I took guitar lessons and the teacher noticed that I was playing by ear. It was a big mistake because I needed to learn all those fancy chords and I didn’t.
“When I was 20, they took me to take accordion lessons at CV Lloyde (music store) in downtown Champaign. Mom had a pump organ upstairs on our farm. I would go up there and play with it,” he recalls his musical roots.
His acting and formal training led him to sing and play guitar, accordion, piano and violin.
“I sang for meetings and everything when I was a little kid. It’s probably been 75 years,” he said of his gift as a musician.
Fast forward to 2018, when leg pain turned out to be a blood clot. He underwent surgery to remove it.
“He drew a new line from my foot to my thigh,” he said of the solution to the life-threatening condition.
Everything was fine until about 18 months ago when he again felt pain in his leg.
“I had it checked out and it was all kinds of infections,” he said.
Several cycles and varieties of antibiotics have failed to clear the infection. Around Christmas last year, he and Elaine were considering getting a second opinion in St. Louis.
Before they could get there, a doctor in Carle gave them enough details about his infection to make them realize there was no time for further evaluation.
“We had to sit down and decide to take it out,” he said of his doctor’s appointment around January 13. “It was hard.”
“We asked the doctor, ‘When are you going to take it out?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow morning,’” Flessner said of the response that hammered home the severity of his condition and gave him little time to mentally prepare for the life-changing event.
To ensure all infection was cleared, they had to make the even more difficult decision to remove the leg above the knee, a choice that made further mobility more difficult.
After three weeks in Carle, first healed from the amputation and later rehabilitated, Flessner was back in a house that now includes a ramp to accommodate his wheelchair and a wider bathroom door.
“We have adapted and I can handle myself quite well,” he said.
Elaine drives the car down the ramp.
“I get up to the car, get up on one leg, get in and drive,” he said. “My wife has to take the wheelchair and get it into the car.”
Quite notable for his 83-year-old life partner, whom he calls “a good farm girl.”
During a home visit, a therapist noticed his guitar.
“He said, ‘Go ahead and sing as much as you can, because that’s good therapy,'” Flessner said.
He took that advice and started playing again, singing at a few recent funerals and other places that could accommodate his wheelchair.
“It has been a blessing. Everywhere I go, people tell me: ‘When are you going to start Philo?’ “, did he declare.
It refers to the concerts that took place over seven weeks on Tuesday evenings in August and September for over a decade in Hale Park on the north side of Philo.
“There is a large pavilion and a small shelter above the stage. We get around 200 to 300 people in lawn chairs,” he said of the crowd which featured mostly white hair or little hair.
Over the years, Flessner has been accompanied by dozens of talented musicians on familiar country and bluegrass tunes and gospel classics.
Probably the most famous of her proteges is Alison Krauss, whose 27 Grammys was the all-time high for a female artist until Beyoncé eclipsed her last year. Flessner said the 51-year-old violin prodigy was around 10 when she first performed with her band in the early 1980s.
Tuesday’s performance featured Logan Kirby, 30, of Fairmount, who prefers classic country and, according to Flessner, is a wonderful Elvis Presley.
“He’s a really great singer,” Flessner said. “I started with him about 10 or 12 years ago. He now plays at Beef House, the Little Theatre.
In addition to Kirby last Tuesday, Flessner called on Tuesday night’s featured artist, Homer Faucet, on the mic to give the audience a taste. The richly-voiced baritone didn’t disappoint with his version of “Sixteen Tons.”
Philo Tuesday performances start around 6:30 p.m. or earlier because “if the crowd is there, we’ll play,” Flessner said.
Sidney Dairy Barn owner Dennis Riggs and manager Chris West were selling their ice cream to go with Philo’s Fire Department pork chop sandwiches. Add low humidity to live music and the whole experience is a guaranteed good time.
Flessner said the gospel show after Labor Day usually results in the most money donated when the hoops are passed.
“We’re giving the money to Salt & Light,” he said of that show.
Flessner said that when performing in nursing homes, he preferred to fall back on these classic country and gospel tunes.
“I notice that their lips move on the songs that I sing. If I make new country songs, they wouldn’t know those words,” he said of his drive to please his audience.
Despite the positive role music played in his recovery, Flessner admits to being depressed for a few days. His first prosthesis didn’t work well for him and he planned to tell the doctor about it on Wednesday for about a second. Like many amputees, he has phantom pain.
“My ankle hurts and it’s not there,” he said.
Still, he’s grateful that he’s no longer in pain these days and that he can do what he loves.
“There are people who suffer every day. I don’t have much pain. It is a blessing,” he said. “The leg healed pretty well.”
His favorite tune to play is appropriate.
“There are so many, but probably ‘Thank you Lord for your blessings on me,'” he said.