An interview with Dan Vrakas, County Executive of Waukesha County and son of Les’ good friend Paul Vrakas.
When did you first hear about Les Paul?
I started playing guitar in 3rd grade and took lessons at one of the music stores in downtown Waukesha. My guitar teacher was in bands and knew about Les Paul because the store was a Gibson distributor. In those days everyone wanted a Gibson. People thought it was the best guitar.
I bought a Les Paul Junior from a friend when I was in Middle School – Central Middle School, the same one Les attended. I spent a lot of hours playing my Les Paul Junior. In the 1970s I sold it for a Mozright guitar. We all have a couple of things we wish we had never sold. I wish I hadn’t sold my Les Paul Junior and I wish I knew where it was.
As a kid I liked that Les’ last name was “Paul” because my Dad’s name was Paul and he was friends with Les. When I got older I found out that my Dad’s uncle, Jimmy D’Amato, was a childhood friend with Les. Although I spent a lot of time my Uncle Jimmy, we didn’t talk much about Les. I wish we had. (See blog on “Childhood Friends.”)
I always wanted to get to see Les at the Iridium, but I never was there on a Monday night. I saw Les in 1988 at his mother’s 100th birthday party and again in 2007 at the Waukesha concert.
What are some of the memorable moments from the 100th birthday party for Les’ mother?
In 1988 I was running Paul’s Restaurant, our family restaurant in Waukesha. My Dad was beginning his second term as mayor of Waukesha. I had a van so Dad asked me to come with him to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport to pick up Les for his Mom’s birthday. I was thrilled. By then everyone in Waukesha knew about the contributions Les had made to the music industry.
At the time I had an acoustic Gibson LGO guitar that had a neck similar to the Les Paul Guitar. I was thinking about how to ask Les to sign it without being obvious. We got in my van. Dad & Les sat in back. I said to Les, “Would you like to see my guitar?” Les responded, “Ah, it’s a beautiful guitar,” and he signed it: “Hi Dan, Les Paul.”
The 100th Birthday Party for Evelyn was very nice. Les played and my Dad played a number or two with him. Hundreds of people were there.
I was the driver for the weekend because I had a van. I remember taking Les to the nursing home to see Evelyn and later to the airport.
What was your impression of Les when you met him?
He was very kind, soft-spoken. In spite of being famous, he was not brash. He always treated me with respect. It was remarkable that in 2007, he remembered me from his 1988 visit to Waukesha. At the concert, my Dad said to Les, “Do you remember my son Dan?” Les replied, “Of course I do.” And he turned to me and said, “You didn’t pick us up at the airport this time.”
In what ways is Les important to the people of Waukesha County?
With all of the innovations Les brought to music, he exemplifies Waukesha County’s history of innovation. He is substantive. Waukesha County has many very good musicians and Les is at the head.
Les choose to make Waukesha his final resting place. He always called Waukesha home. Being the home town of such a famous person is a real honor. He put Waukesha on the map during his life and he always will be “The Wizard of Waukesha”.
What is the most significant lesson Les’ life has for kids?
You can be anyone you dream of being. The sky is the limit. We are fortunate to live in a country where you can realize your dreams. From the streets of Waukesha to Park Ave and Rodeo Drive, Les made a name for himself through hard work. He never gave up. He showed us that it’s never too late to start working on your dreams. That’s a good lesson for all of us, not just kids.