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Laporte accordionist recovers from deadly cancer to continue entertaining audiences

Russell Doke provided festive polka music for the occasion, including "The Chicken Dance." (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

LAPORTE -- Carol Doke says her husband, 68-year-old Russell Doke, is a living miracle.

"I believe that," she said. "God saved him to make the people happy with his music."

In 2007, Russell was diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent massive surgery.

"They took out his stomach and his pancreas and part of his spleen and, later, his gall bladder," Carol said.

"The only thing they didn't take out was my appendix," Russell said with a smile. "They didn't want that."

In an experimental move, he said the surgeons made a little pouch out of his intestine to serve as a substitute stomach. Consequently, he could only eat tiny bites of food and became emaciated - 220 pounds down to 135 pounds - and so weak he couldn't even comb his hair, he said.

But he came out of the health crisis and picked up his accordion again. He now bills himself as Polka Extraordinaire, although he plays a variety of musical styles.

"I learned to play the piano accordion when I was 8 years old," Russell said.

At first, Russell said he wasn't enthusiastic about learning the accordion, so his mother paid him to practice.

"My stepfather made learning it a requirement, so I took lessons and found out I had a real talent for the instrument," he said. "He was German. He wanted me to play 'Ach, du lieber Augustin.'"

Russell played in competitions as a boy and won the overall championship in Little Falls, Minn., when he was 12. He said he played "In the Tavern Polka."

His stepfather died when Russell was a teenager. He had to manage the family farm near Royalton, Minn., while his mother supported the family as a seamstress.

"I was not farmer - I admit it," Russell said.

But when he was 15, a band leader, Dave Willie, came to the Doke home and asked Russell to sight-read his music. "I played it all for him," Russell recalled.

Dave Willie then asked Russell to join his orchestra. He said they played in towns such as Little Falls and McGregor and Sobieski, Minn.

"My mom said (to Willie), 'Don't you let him have any beer or I'll jerk him right away from you guys,'" Russell recalled.

Russell and Carol were married in the summer of 1961. Russell spent most of his career as a machinist. During those years, he said he didn't play music because he was working so many hours. He now works part time as custodian for the Laporte School.

Russell said he picked up the accordion again about 12 years ago to entertain people in care centers. He also now plays at community celebrations such as the Lake George Blueberry Festival and, this month, Oktoberfest at Gull Lake. He also plays for business open house events. He will be playing in Bemidji Nov. 6 at the Ink Spot.

Russell said he can read music and hear it in his mind without playing it. He also plays by ear and knows hundreds of songs. He has written out a play list he keeps in his pocket to remind himself of some of the crowd pleasers. But every 15 minutes or so during a performance, he launches into "The Chicken Dance."