PETERBOROUGH - Robert C. McQuillen, 90, of Granite Street, died Tuesday, Feb. 4, at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester. Known to many as Uncle Bob, Mac or Mr. Mac, Bob was born in Cambridge, Mass., June 27, 1923, to Bryant McQuillen and Eleanor Latimer McQuillen.
After his parents divorced, his mother married Hugh Campbell, and they moved to New Boston to run an apple orchard and farm. Bob worked on the farm as a teenager, and discovered his love of music there, first borrowing a guitar from a farmhand and subsequently acquiring his own guitar and then an accordion. He graduated from Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., and briefly attended Harvard University
Bob joined the Marines in 1943, serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II
. After his discharge, he met Priscilla Scribner at a contra dance in Peterborough. The two married in 1947. Bob re-enlisted in the Marines in 1952 and fought in the Korean War
. Assigned to teach marksmanship to soldiers, he discovered he loved teaching.
On his return to civilian life, Bob and his wife started a family, and Bob enrolled at Keene Teachers' College, now Keene State College, where he majored in education, graduating in the class of 1959. He taught industrial arts at Peterborough High School and its successor, ConVal High School, until 1984, but continued to teach as a substitute for another decade.
Throughout these years, music was a major part of his life. Self-described as "an old-time piano player," Bob was widely known and loved as the dean of New England contra dance musicians. He started playing for dances in 1947, when he joined the Ralph Page Orchestra on accordion; in the 1960s, he started playing piano. After playing for Page and for Duke Miller's weekly summer dance series in Peterborough and Fitzwilliam, Bob became part of the group of musicians in the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. Canterbury released several record albums in the early 1970s that caught the attention of musicians around the country, with Bob's powerful beat supporting traditional New England dance tunes. In later years, he worked in smaller bands, including New England Tradition (with Pete Colby and April Limber), Old New England (with Deanna Stiles and Jane Orzechowski), and the Seattle-based Rhythm Rollers (with Laurie Andres, Cathie Whitesides, and WB Reid). Virtually every Monday night for several decades, Bob played piano at the weekly dance in Nelson.
McQuillen taught others his distinctive "boom-chuck" style of piano playing; he frequently cited Johnny Trombly, Ralph Page's pianist, as his own model. McQuillen's first rule in playing for dances was "Keep a steady beat," explaining that this "gives the dancers something to hook their feet to." He was featured at dance camps around the country and acted as a mentor to many young musicians in New Hampshire. He appeared regularly at Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle and at the Augusta Heritage camp in West Virginia.
He was also a prolific composer of dance tunes, more than 1,600 jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches, and waltzes. He published 15 volumes of his tunes, which he called "Bob's Note Books," along with "Bob's Big Book of Waltzes." At the time of his death, he was working on a new collection, composing one tune for each of the 234 towns and cities in New Hampshire. Among his best-known compositions are "The Dancing Bear," written for a student he coached in weightlifting, and "Amelia," a waltz written for the daughter of a fellow musician.
In 1997, Bob McQuillen received the New Hampshire Governor's Arts Award in Living Folk Heritage. He was part of the delegation representing New Hampshire at the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC. In 2001, he was celebrated at the annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend in Durham, where a documentary video about him, Paid to Eat Ice Cream, premiered. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts; he was the first person from the contra dance world to receive that designation. In 2008, he received the Lifetime Contribution Award from the Country Dance and Song Society, presented to him at the New England Folk Festival, which he attended for nearly 60 years.
Bob is survived by his son, Daniel McQuillen, of Houston, Texas; his daughter, Rebecca Parsons, of Kissimmee, Fla.; grandchildren Luke McQuillen, Tyler Ryan, and Anna, Evan, and Allison Parsons; two great-grandchildren; and his cousin, Mia Mead. His wife, Priscilla, and son William, and his daughter-in-law, Tammy McQuillen, died earlier.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Monadnock Folklore Society at 54 Brook St., Keene, NH 03431,or through the organization's website, www.monadnockfolk.org
. Jellison Funeral Home, Peterborough, is handling arrangements. A celebration of Bob's life will be the weekend of May 3rd in Peterborough. Complete details will be announced later.