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Arnold DeCamp | 1913-2009

Arnold DeCamp, furniture salesman and bandleader, dies

BEACH PARK — A Coca-Cola in Tennessee led to Arnold DeCamp's marriage. A snowstorm in Belgium led Mr. DeCamp and his wife to move to Tampa.

For almost a half-century after that, Mr. DeCamp became one of Tampa's most well-known musicians, playing the big band music he loved with the Don Francisco Orchestra. In the early 1980s, he became the orchestra's leader and renamed it Arnold DeCamp and the Don Francisco Orchestra.

Mr. DeCamp passed away Oct. 27 after a prolonged illness. He was 96.

He grew up in Lansing, Mich., and even when he was a youngster, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

"He always loved music," said his daughter, Jan DeCamp-Brown. "The day he graduated, he went and got his musicians union card and started playing in bands."

Mr. DeCamp was just 17 at the time, but his talents as a trombonist got him steady work with bands that toured the country.

He was drafted into the Army during World War II and fought in major battles. But he spent much of his Army tour playing music for other soldiers.

He was on leave and visiting a small town in Tennessee when he and another GI spotted two girls window-shopping. They asked the girls to go have a Coke. Mr. DeCamp and one of the girls, whose name was Fay, connected immediately. When they finished their drinks, he asked if he could write to her.

They corresponded throughout the war. In one letter, he wrote of the horrors not only of battle but of the weather.

"He was in the Battle of the Bulge," his daughter said, "and they were armpit-deep in snow. He wrote to her that if he lived through it, he never wanted to see snow again."

When the war was over, Mr. DeCamp went to Tennessee to see Fay. They had only met once until then, but fell in love through their letters. They were married very shortly after, and a week later moved to Tampa so Mr. DeCamp would never have to endure snow.

"Everyone thought their marriage wouldn't last," his daughter said. "But they celebrated 64 years together on Oct. 4."

They lived in a small travel trailer at first, but soon Mr. DeCamp bought some land in Beach Park and started building a house.

He subcontracted some of the work, but much of it he did himself to save money.

"My father would try anything," his daughter said. "If he didn't know how to do it, he'd learn. He'd read books, and he'd ask people."

The house he built with his own hands would be the DeCamp family home for decades. The couple's two daughters grew up there. Mrs. Decamp lives next door in another house her husband built himself.

He played in bands most evenings, but in the daytime he worked at a furniture store. After just a few years, he opened a store of his own, Arnold's Furniture on Kennedy Boulevard.

"He started with used furniture, but then he realized people wanted nice furniture but couldn't always afford it," his daughter said. "So he started selling unfinished furniture. He was the first one to sell unfinished furniture in Tampa."

The store thrived for 30 years, with Mr. DeCamp and his wife working there together every day until they retired in 1980.

He had played with the Don Francisco Orchestra for years, and after he closed the store he bought the rights to all the orchestra's arrangements and became the band's leader. Although jobs for big bands became rarer, he kept it up into the 1990s.

Even in his 80s, Mr. DeCamp never lost his passion for life, for learning and for adventure. He and his wife traveled all over the world until a stroke in 2004 led his health to deteriorate.

"He was an amazing man," his daughter said. "He taught us to be strong, to be independent and to forge our own paths. And that's what we've done."

Beside his wife and his daughter Jan, Mr. DeCamp is survived by his daughter Cathy Sanders, a grandson and two great-grandchildren.

Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Arnold DeCamp, furniture salesman and bandleader, dies 11/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 3:31am]
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