Many people can cite a person who drastically altered the direction of their lives. For Del Puschert of Annapolis, that person was his fourth-grade teacher at Germantown Elementary, Eloise Zacharias.
In 1942, Zacharias told Puschert that he had a gift, a natural facility, to play the saxophone.
She discovered his talent at the Annapolis Elks Club on Main Street when the Naval Academy band had asked the 10-year-old Puschert to fill in for their regular sax player who couldn't make the New Year's Eve gig.
Zacharias happened to be at the lodge that night and she was taken with his musical abilities. After that evening's performance, every time the class took a field trip, she asked him to bring his sax along.
Zacharias had handed Puschert the key to his identity.
"I wasn't a good student," the 78-year-old Puschert said. "I wasn't an athlete. I wasn't good-looking. But I had my music."
Puschert started playing the soprano saxophone at age 3. His dad, a clarinet, saxophone and violin player in the Naval Academy band, was his first teacher. He also took piano lessons on West Street near the now-defunct Gold's Gym.
He struggled throughout school though, flunking four times. Part of the problem was his penchant for sneaking off to clubs to play music. One of his more memorable jaunts was going to the Two O'Clock Club in Baltimore to play for stripper Blaze Star's show. He ultimately left school for good after 10th grade when he was 17 and married a 15-year-old girl.
Puschert built a small white house on Defense Highway on his dad's property for the young couple. It still stands in front of the building that now houses Del's Barber & Styling Shop.
That marriage didn't last long — nor did a couple of successive marriages. However, Puschert has been with his current wife, Harriette, for 32 years and they live adjacent that tiny first home.
Despite his personal turmoil, Puschert went on to have a fabulous career in music. Best known as the sax player for Elvis for a short time, Puschert has also played with The Coasters, James Brown, The Drifters, Otis Reading, Ike and Tina Turner, Asleep at the Wheel, Charlie Daniels and Smokey Robinson, among others.
Puschert met Elvis by chance at The Hut, a run-down club in Texarcana, AR, where Puschert was performing. Elvis happened by and asked if he could sing with the musicians. After the gig, Elvis joined Puschert for biscuits and gravy.
"That's how we became friends," said Puschert, dubbed "Daddy-O Del" by Elvis.
After that, Elvis stopped by whenever he was near Texarcana. Although he didn't generally use a sax player in his band, he invited Del to play several concerts with him at the Olympia Theatre in Miami with him in 1956.
Soon after, Elvis went to Hollywood to make the movie, Love Me Tender, the beginning of his reign as The King. Puschert didn't see him again.
He still holds some tangible memories of that time though.
Of particular note is Puschert's framed box of Elvis memorabilia, containing a section of Elvis' white pants that fans ripped to shreds after one Miami concert. There's also a piece of Elvis' lavender coat, and Photoplay magazine clippings of Elvis from that time. Another framed photo captures a much-heavier Puschert shaking Elvis' hand.
About the same time he met Elvis, Puschert also became a member of the newly formed Van Dykes. During that racially charged time period from 1956 to 1966, he was the only white man in the African American eight-member group.
The Annapolis-based Van Dykes became popular, touring throughout the mid-Atlantic. The group also was the house band for eight years at Sparrows Beach on the Annapolis Neck peninsula, a fashionable music venue for African Americans at that time.
"For eight out of ten years, we were the No. 1 band in Baltimore," Puschert said.
He plays less often now, but still takes on gigs that he deems worthwhile or just plain fun. He played a concert with Chuck Berry, now 84, at the Strathmore in October. And, he regularly plays at Fred & Margie's, a club in Curtis Bay. He and his wife spend their winters in Texas, and he jams whenever the spirit moves him.
"I just wanna have fun. No more obligations," he said.
When it comes right down to it, it's not Elvis or any of the other famous musicians that he's played with over the years who have made the greatest impact on the trajectory of his life. It was Eloise Zacharias, the fourth grade teacher who believed in him, and told him so.
He still tears up at her memory.
"She pulled me through," he said. "She always encouraged me. I loved her."
He visited her as she lay dying in her Admiral Heights home many years ago and he told her exactly that.
This story is part 1 of 2 about Del Puschert, the musical barber. Part 2, which covers Puschert's collection of memorabilia, will appear on Patch soon.