Guitar collector gives gift of music to Anchorage kids

Laurel Andrews
Photo courtesy Dale Houston

Dale Houston loves collecting guitars. A longtime Anchorage resident, Houston regularly buys used guitars from pawn shops and repairs them to working order. Then, he gives the instruments away.

Houston has donated around 60 guitars to local schools and community organizations since he began collecting in 2004. Now, as his father-in-law prepares to move into Houston's home, he has been prompted to give away guitars on a larger scale. In the past two weeks, he's given 18 guitars to schools around Anchorage, with hopes that the students' lives will be enriched by the donation.

Having a guitar "is like gold, you can play it the rest of your life," Houston said.

Clark Middle School band teacher Aeneas Alldredge said he was "kind of stunned" when Houston approached him about the donation a few weeks ago, asking to "find students that will use (the guitars) and not abuse them."

Houston donated five guitars -- including a Gibson SG and Jackson Soloist -- and one bass guitar to the school. "They're not cheap guitars, they're professional-grade guitars" Alldredge said. He retained two for the school band, and gave the remaining four away to students.

So what's the reaction of a student who has just been gifted a new guitar? "Incredulous shock," Alldredge said.

One girl, who Alldredge described as his "all-around best student," had been using a subpar instrument to practice on. He told her: "That'd be really cool if you had a decent guitar, wouldn't it?" When she told him she was saving up to buy a better instrument, Alldredge replied, "here you go."

While the students are shocked -- "What do you mean it's free?" Alldredge said -- the parents are too. Alldredge had just one caveat for the students: They can't sell the guitars. If they want to get rid of it, they will have to give it away.

Houston donated two Squier electric basses to Begich Middle School. Band teacher Philip Walters said one of the instruments is now used in the school's jazz band, and the second was loaned out long-term to one of the school's bass players who couldn't afford to buy his own instrument. "He was pretty excited," Walters said.

While the school receives some donations every year, "usually for a donation like that we'll offer to give a (tax-deductible) receipt," Walters said. But Houston "told me he didn't want anything like that."

For Houston, the act of giving is everything. Houston started collecting guitars in 2004, "once I found out about Ebay," he said, a popular online auction website. "From there my OCD kicked in," and he started collecting, he said, at one point topping 70 guitars in his collection.

Now, pawn shops around town call him when they have guitars in stock. Houston will go in, "start pulling all the cheap ones," and strike a deal, picking up a dozen or so guitars at heavily reduced prices, he said.

Then, he fixes them up. Sometimes the guitars need to be cleaned, the "rotten stickers removed," new strings put on, or they require bridge or neck work. Houston taught himself to repair the instruments. "You can get on the Internet and find out anything," he said.

Houston first started giving guitars away in 2006. As he watched a couple of people play his instruments at a local church, "I could see that they just loved them," he said. At the end of the day, "I looked at them and said 'take it, take it home.' " When they replied that they couldn't, he told them "then burn it." They accepted the guitars after that, he said.

From that point on, Houston began donating guitars from his ever-growing collection. But it wasn't until two years ago that he fully realized the impact that his donations could have.

He had given some guitars to the Boys and Girls Club of Mountain View, and returned later to donate a couple more. When he went back the second time, a staffer told him, "Hey, I want to show you something," Houston said.

They walked into an area where a young boy was playing one of the guitars. They listened as the boy, unaware that they were watching, played like a natural. "I was just floored by how much he was enjoying it," Houston said. "He was phenomenal."

That's when Houston realized "I could be giving away a guitar to the next Jimi Hendrix," he said.

Houston said his life experience instilled a sense of giving in him. A ninth-grade dropout, Houston "never got a GED, never went to college," he said. One day, at age 17, he hitchhiked from his day-job painting houses to his second job working at a gas station. When he got dropped off, the driver offered Houston a job at a sheet metal shop. Houston never looked back. Twenty years later, Houston owns H&K Sheetmetal Fabricators, Inc. "I've been blessed," he said. "I live a life I never expected."

The experience of raising a family member's baby, and working with the Office of Children's Services, also instilled a sense of altruism in him. "I was exposed to a lot of underprivileged people," he said. He realized that you never know who in your life could benefit from your actions, he said.

Even after giving 18 guitars away, he's still got 44 on hand -- two of which were purchased this weekend. If he donates another dozen guitars, he'll have space in his home to complete renovations before this father-in-law moves in, he said.

"I'm not in it to get credit for it," Houston said. "I've never had so much in my life as when I've given it away."

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