BEMIDJI -- Two lifelong Bemidji men who were well known for their talents outside of work have died.
Mike Mohler and Zeb Degerman are both being remembered for their friendships, their humor and their versatility.
Mohler, 66, died on Thanksgiving after a long illness. He spent most of his career in advertising sales, but was best known for making music as a lead guitarist and singer with a number of bands in the area. A celebration of life for Mohler will be held from 3-6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 11 at Lazy Jack’s Bar & Grill.
Degerman, 85, died Sunday, Dec. 1. He was a barber in Nymore for many years, but also was one of the best bowlers in town, a standout baseball pitcher and an accomplished golfer. Funeral arrangements were not finalized as of Friday.
An all-around good guy
Sid Sletten, who played with Mohler, Dave Sand and Dave Bewley in the band Power Play for 30 years starting in 1985, called Mike the “best guitar player in northern Minnesota.
"He played rock, he played jazz, he played country, he played blues really well. He could sing really well. He liked to entertain. He liked the music business,” Sletten said.
“I hired Power Play for both of my daughters’ wedding dances because of their versatility,” said Mike Naylor, who also recorded CDs for the band in his Bemidji studio. “If some guy wanted a polka, by gosh they’d play him one. And they enjoyed it.
“What a good friend Mike Mohler could be, and what a nice guy he was,” Naylor added. “I never saw him get angry.”
Sand, who was Power Play’s drummer, also was impressed by Mohler’s ability to play all kinds of music. “He was very versatile and a good singer,” Sand said, “But most of all he was a lot of fun to play music with. Just a blast. He was a professional when he played, and he was a lot of fun.”
In addition to his paying gigs over the years, Mohler volunteered his musical talents at area nursing homes, senior centers and community events.
Sletten said one of Power Play’s final gigs was during the 2015 Bemidji All School Reunion, and just days before Mike’s death, he and Mohler talked about the possibility of getting back together to make music at the 2020 reunion.
“Mike will be a highly missed friend, musician and person in the community,” Sletten said. “Everybody always liked him. Just an all-around good guy.”
A nickname that stuck
Dick William Degerman was a Nymore kid, and most Nymore kids were given nicknames by David Belair. That’s how Degerman became known as Zeb, according to Larry “Leash” Belair, David’s younger brother. The Belair family lived across the street from the Degermans.
“My brother gave every kid in Nymore a nickname,” Larry said. “He came home one time and my mom had tied me to a tree, because I tended to wander off. David told Mom, ‘You’ve got him on a leash.’ I’ve been known as Leash ever since.”
Leash and Zeb became best buddies. So much so that when Zeb needed a model for his final exam at Moler Barber College in Fargo, Leash was the guy who got the graduation haircut. Leash also remembers coming home with an aching hand many times after catching pitches from Zeb on the baseball field.
“I couldn’t say no because he would have beaten me up,” Larry said with a chuckle. “He was a great baseball player. Horace May (former coach) told him he could have made it to the big leagues.”
Zeb served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and worked for the railroad for a time before returning to Nymore and cutting hair for 60 years. He had a shop across from the Corner Bar for many years, and later moved his business into his home nearby.
When work was done, Zeb could often be found at the bowling alley. He was one of the town’s best for more than half a century, and was among the first class inducted into the Bemidji Men’s Bowling Association Hall of Fame in 2008.
Fellow bowler Tom Burlingame was inducted alongside Degerman.
“Zeb bowled in 2-3 leagues,” Burlingame said. “We’d go to the banquet at the end of the year, and he’d usually have high game, high series, high average and the team trophy for each league. So he’d be sitting there with 12 trophies. He was a wonderful guy.”
He also was known for a good sense of humor. The first time Burlingame went to Zeb’s barber shop, in an era where long hair was in fashion, Zeb asked, “Do you want a haircut, or an estimate?”
“Everybody liked Zeb,” said Dave Stevens, a longtime friend and bowling teammate. “He was easy to get along with.”
“To me losing him now is like losing a family member,” added Larry Belair.