Thomas and Donna Crown with a brass instrument mute

Tom Crown, 92, has had a successful and eclectic musical career, spending the majority of it as second trumpet for Chicago’s Lyric Opera.

His musical beginnings date back to the first day he played in the kindergarten percussion ensemble. Excited, he couldn’t wait to get home and tell his mother that he “got to play tangerines and thimbles!” (tambourines and cymbals).

Crown’s musical proclivity was further revealed in seventh grade, scoring high marks on a music test. As a prize, he was given a rather beat-up Eb (E-flat) tuba to play in the school band. “This seemed to be more of a punishment than an award, considering the instrument, my small size at that time and the condition of the tuba I was given,” Crown said. “I learned how to play the tuba, more or less, but yearned to play something smaller.”

In the summer between grammar school and high school, he bought his first trumpet — a second-hand Sears Roebuck Sterling for $10 — and had high hopes of playing it in the school band. However, upon entering South Shore High School, he found that his reputation on tuba preceded him. Again, he was saddled with the tuba, which soon morphed into a sousaphone.

Undeterred, he continued to practice trumpet on his own with a neighborhood teacher, Mrs. Harridge, and soon began establishing a reputation for himself.

He kept asking his band director if he could switch instruments, but to no avail. “My solution was to quit the band completely during my sophomore year,” he said. “I progressed steadily after that.”

Crown played local dances with pop and jazz combos and, he recalls, made a respectable $4 a gig that he used to treat himself to a new-used trumpet, an Olds Studio. “I don't think I have since been as thrilled with a trumpet as with that beautiful OIds,” he said.

After high school, he enrolled at Woodrow Wilson Junior College and started taking lessons from Renold Schilke at Central YMCA College, the precursor to Roosevelt University. Schilke, a renowned and accomplished performer, encouraged him to audition for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony. There, he was given a scholarship to study with Adolph Herseth. “His lessons were invaluable,” he said.

Crown then received a tuition scholarship his junior and senior year to Roosevelt University’s School of Music, now the Chicago College of Performing Arts, graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Music Education degree. He completed a master’s degree in the same subject in 1959 with plans that included teaching.

“I continue to be grateful for my Roosevelt scholarships and wanted to help other young musicians in the same way,” he said. Crown’s recent bequest established the Thomas and Donna Crown Scholarship to benefit a trumpet player and a trombone player each year. The planned gift also is named for his late wife, Donna, who was a trombonist. The couple spent 61 years together until her death last October. This gift is the couple’s lasting legacy to young Roosevelt musicians.

Learn more about planned giving.


Crown’s first professional job was playing with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, which led to a tour with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1953. Then WGN Radio-TV hired him as its orchestra’s first trumpet. Soon thereafter, Uncle Sam came calling.

Drafted into the Army in 1953, he was stationed near Stuttgart, Germany, and performed with the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra. “It was a defining period of my life," he said. "We toured France, Italy and Great Britain, and played innumerable concerts in Germany. It was an exciting time. The exposure to other cultures and languages influenced the rest of my life.”

When his two-year Army stint ended, he returned to WGN and accompanied such luminaries as Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. During that time, he started taking lessons from master performer Arnold Jacobs, the tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who taught brass instruments. It was Jacobs who introduced Crown to another of his students, Donna Frank, a young trombonist.

“Arnold did a little matchmaking, I think," Crown said. "He scheduled our lessons one right after the other, so we’d be sure to meet. I asked her on a date to see the CSO, and two years later, we married on July 4, 1959.”

In 1964, Crown joined the Lyric Opera Orchestra and remained with them until his retirement 29 years later in 1993.

Over those years, under longtime principal conductor Bruno Bartoletti, Crown performed all the great operas, accompanying such stars as Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland, among others.

He recalls those days as incredibly busy. Like many musicians, he worked a number of jobs. “Some mornings, I would ride my bicycle to WGN to play in the Bozo Circus Band. After lunch, I might have an early afternoon rehearsal at the Lyric; then over to Roosevelt to give some trumpet lessons; and, after a break for dinner, I’d be back at the Lyric for an evening performance.”

Somehow, he still had energy to spare, so, inspired by a piccolo-trumpet mute used by his teacher, friend and CSO principal trumpeter Adolph Herseth, Crown began experimenting with producing his own mutes.

“My first was a straight mute for the B-flat or C trumpet that was well received by professional trumpeters worldwide,” he said. In 1968, Crown, with the help of his wife, opened Crown Mutes, a company on the city’s Northwest Side that still produces mutes today.

As he reflects on a long and full life — filled with music, family, world travels, countless concerts and hours and hours of practicing, Crown is grateful. Grateful for his parents’ early support of his career choice, for the love of his wife, for his teachers’ time, for his Roosevelt education and for the life he’s been able to live, due in great part to his most prized possession, his trumpet.

Visit to learn more about how you can include Roosevelt in your estate plans.

I continue to be grateful for my Roosevelt scholarships and wanted to help other young musicians in the same way.Thomas Crown


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