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At 91, Denton-raised big band vocalist is low-key about the high life of her youth

KELLER — At 91, Hilda “Tinker” Rautenberg doesn’t make a big production of her storied past. Still, she might occasionally break into song, reminded of a ditty or two she sang as a member of the Moonmaids, who did vocals for popular big band leader Vaughn Monroe in the late 1940s.

Born Hilda Cunningham, Rautenberg had just started at North Texas State Teachers College — now the University of North Texas — when she and three fellow students formed a collegiate quartet. Several lucky breaks put them in the spotlight and then on Monroe’s national circuit, where they met stars like Frank Sinatra, Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney and appeared in the 1947 film Carnegie Hall.

Only rarely now does Rautenberg bring out her tattered, overflowing scrapbooks of news clippings and black-and-white photos of big band concerts, fancy banquets, beach frolics and life on the road.

“I really don’t tell people,” she said recently at Mustang Creek Estates in Keller, the senior community where she now lives.

The keepsakes sometimes surprise the staff and residents.

“When I found out who she was, I was, like, ‘Oh my God,’” said La’Fonda “KK” Mathis, an activity director at the community. “We didn’t know who we were taking care of.”

Those years were a dream come true for a girl from Denton who’d sung since third grade, earning the nickname “Tinker” as a toddler for her habit of getting into things. She and schoolmates Mary Jo Thomas, Arline Truax and Katie Myatt loved big bands and their vocal groups, catching shows when they came to town and practicing their own arrangements. By 1943, the four had formed the North Texas Swingtet.

A talent show victory the next year put them onstage at Dallas’ Majestic Theatre — and helped land them a national United Service Organizations tour gig performing in hospital wards.

“It was our first inkling that maybe we’d like to do this as a career,” Rautenberg said.

Mark Finley / Shaban Athuman/The Dallas Morning News  

Hilda Tinker Rautenberg goes through a picture of her United Service Organizations trip at Mustang Creek Estates in Keller.

One night, they drove to Lake Worth to see bandleader Stan Kenton, who graciously agreed after the show to listen to them sing. Also there was a writer for Band Leaders magazine, who was trailing Kenton for a profile and said he knew of someone who needed a vocal group: Monroe, the deep-voiced crooner whose existing quartet was disbanding.

As one academic journal noted, Monroe’s low voice earned him monikers like “the baritone with muscles in his throat” and “the voice with hair on its chest.” Known for classics like “Riders in the Sky” and “Let It Snow,” he was among post-WWII singers like Sinatra and Bing Crosby who embraced slow, romantic love songs over the hot jazz sounds that preceded them.

Hearing their demo, Monroe hired the singers sight unseen and sent them two dozen arrangements to practice. They flew to New York in March 1946, and he renamed them the Moonmaids — a nod to his signature tune, “Racing With the Moon.”

“We had no idea our boss was so popular,” Rautenberg said. “But he was a good family man, which we all appreciated.”

One of Monroe’s former singers stayed on with the group, showing the fledgling vocalists, who Monroe called his “Texas kids,” the ropes of big band performance and being on the road.

“She took charge of us,” Rautenberg said. “We had to get gowns and suits fitted. She’d say, ‘Run off the stage quick because Vaughn’s going to ask for a curtain call.’ But we were ready for the challenge.”

There were flubs. Once, Rautenberg and another Moonmaid were backstage playing cards when they heard a song intro onstage, where they were supposed to be.

“We were so apologetic,” she said. “It never happened again, and Vaughn forgave us.”

Being in the national spotlight meant a life constantly on the move.

“You learned to be organized, to carry your necessities, to not worry about getting your clothes clean if you couldn’t,” Rautenberg recalled. “You learned to make the best of it. You would be so tired that you could fall asleep on the makeup table. The buses were drafty, and you were at the mercy of wherever you stopped for the bathroom.”

Still in their late teens, they lugged their own bags full of cumbersome costumes and cowboy boots on and off the bus. Musical equipment rode in a separate truck, while Monroe flew his own private plane.

Mark Finley / Shaban Athuman/The Dallas Morning News  

Hilda “Tinker” Rautenberg goes through a scrapbook. Rautenberg doesn’t make a big production of her storied past. But every once in a while the 91-year-old can’t help but break into song, reminded of one of the many ditties she sang as a member of the Moonmaids, who did vocals for big band leader Vaughn Monroe for several years in the 1940s.

Occasional flat tires prompted impromptu picnics or penny-pitching sessions against a curb, but it was one day in 1948 that stands out: The Moonmaids and band members were half-asleep en route to a show in West Virginia when someone shouted, “There’s smoke coming out of the floor!”

The driver pulled over and they scurried off the flaming bus, grabbing whatever was closest at hand. “I took my bag, but left my cashmere coat,” Rautenberg lamented. “We just stood on the side of the road, watching it burn.”

Still, the show would go on. The fire was eventually blamed on overheated brakes.

By 1950, the “Texas kids” had tired of the constant touring, and besides, they’d promised their parents they’d return to finish school.

In her early 20s, Rautenberg returned to Denton to finish her studies and met her future husband, Bill Rautenberg, on a blind date. They married in July 1951, and he enjoyed a 30-year career as a Dr Pepper executive while she found gigs doing commercial and radio station identification jingles, just happy to sing again.

Fellow Moonmaids followed similar paths, and as years passed some periodically reunited for benefits and other shows. “We sang in nursing homes, Rotary Clubs, anybody who wanted to hear us,” Rautenberg said.

These days, only two other Moonmaids remain — Thomas, who lives in Dallas, and June Bratone, who’d joined after one original member left and now lives in College Station. Rautenberg sees them only occasionally.

Her husband died in 2004, and she’s been a beloved member of the Mustang Creek community since early last year.

“Tinker radiates happiness everywhere she goes,” said Candy Jiwa, the community’s executive director.

Rautenberg’s fingers are barely strong enough to forge a solid guitar chord anymore, the calluses of regular friction long gone. But that doesn’t stop her from periodically doing what brings her joy. One morning, she retrieved her instrument and played one of her old favorites: “Try to Remember,” from the musical The Fantasticks.

Try to remember when life was so tender

When dreams were kept beside your pillow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

When love was an ember about to billow.

Afterward, seeing the scrapbooks spread on the table, a facility staff member told her, “It’s an honor to meet you.”

Rautenberg smiled.

“I’m just a normal person, like anybody else,” Rautenberg said. “I’m old. But I had a fun career.”


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Efforts to eliminate maternal, neonatal tetanus highlighted at Kiwanis convention

Kiwanis from two states took time Friday during their convention to highlight where their efforts have been successful in eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.

The Eliminate Project Walk, part of Kiwanis International’s joint project with UNICEF, took place Friday afternoon outside the Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center, where members of the Texas-Oklahoma District Kiwanis have been meeting for their district convention, which concluded Sunday.

Friday’s walk highlighted the countries where maternal and neonatal tetanus has been eliminated, according to convention chairman Joe Holland. As of July, maternal and neonatal tetanus has been eliminated in 46 of the 59 countries where the initiative has been undertaken, Holland said.

Maternal and neonatal tetanus is a common consequence of unclean deliveries and umbilical cord care practices that often leave mothers and their newborns at risk of a variety of life-threatening infections, according to the World Health Organization.

Since 2010, Kiwanis International has pledged $110 million to UNICEF, according to Francine Eikner, Texas-Oklahoma district coordinator for the Eliminate Project. The partnership, Eikner said, is in an effort to eliminate the disease by supplying vaccines to women in countries where the disease still exists.

A country is deemed to have “eliminated” the disease when fewer than 1 in 1,000 births are affected by tetanus, Eikner said. Many maternal and neonatal tetanus cases stem from unsanitary birthing conditions because of the tetanus spores that can be found in the soil, she said.

“When these women have babies in their huts or on a dirt floor, or just anywhere that’s not clean or sanitary, then there’s the chance that baby will be exposed — particularly during the cutting of the umbilical cord — to those tetanus spores that are in the dirt,” Eikner said.

For newborns who are exposed to tetanus, Eikner said, it can often lead to a “seven-day death,” where a child begins to experience seizures and a painful sensitivity to light that is often followed by death. However, as countries expand access to vaccines and education on the matter improves, she said, more people are able to access the resources that are able to prevent or mitigate the occurrence of tetanus.

Kiwanis Club of McKinney President Julie Lichter, whose organization pledged $64,000 to the Eliminate Project over a five-year period, said she felt sad after viewing the countries that had not yet eliminated the disease and acknowledged that it’s important for their organization to continue its efforts.

“It made me sad to see that some of these countries have not welcomed this opportunity to better the health of not only their mothers, but also their infants and future generations,” Lichter said. “But the only thing we can do year after year is make sure that we are sustaining the future for these countries with an environment that is healthy [for mothers and infants].”

As Friday’s event concluded, Holland said he was thankful for the support and efforts of members who took part. Through the help of their district members and the Kiwanis organization as a whole, he said, maternal and neonatal tetanus can be eliminated “for good.”


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Confederate monument protesters talk 'Reclaim America' group, weekend's mass shootings

This story has been updated to reflect that the Harvest House general manager was assaulted on July 28.

While protesting the Confederate soldier monument Sunday, a protester said the motives behind putting up the statue, the mass shootings this weekend and the “Reclaim America” chanters lie in white supremacy.

Denton County NAACP President Willie Hudpseth has been protesting the monument on the Square every Sunday for about 20 years. This Sunday was no exception. Some people came by to talk while others glance over while Hudspeth and another protester, Cody Goodman, explaining why they want the statue to be moved.

“I think [the shootings and ‘Reclaim America’ group] are all connected,” Goodman said when asked about both situations. “I think the underlying white supremacy is behind why people put this monument up, that is behind why the Confederacy existed, that is behind why those guys chanted ‘reclaim America’ and what they meant by that.”

The general manager of Harvest House said he was punched in the face July 28 by a man after he asked his group, one person with multiple visible swastika tattoos, to leave.

About a dozen people gathered outside Rubber Gloves that same day chanting “Reclaim America!” — a slogan on Patriot Front’s website. Patriot Front is an organization identified as a white supremacist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A local resident planned a demonstration for July 31 in response to the situation and another that same night.

“They’re all based in white supremacy, and if we can take down white supremacist symbols, we can we can send a resounding message that we don’t accept or celebrate that kind of white supremacy in Denton,” Goodman said.

Goodman holds a sign that reads “reject white supremacy” while standing under the monument. While one person walked by and agreed with the sentiment and said “f--k that s--t,” someone else drove by on in a black truck and flipped Goodman and Hudspeth the middle finger.

A 13-year-old boy passing by with friends and discussing with Goodman said he was just there to make people mad. The boy said the Confederacy fought for states’ rights and that the monument wasn’t “inherently racist.”

Goodman said he was first inspired to actively protest the monument in Denton after the Charleston shooting in 2015 where nine were killed.

A shooting in El Paso Saturday left 20 dead and another in Ohio early Sunday claimed at least nine lives. More than 50 people in total were injured.

The El Paso gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, was arrested and is being charged with state capital murder charges, law enforcement officials said Sunday.

Hudpseth said the shootings made him sad and added violence won’t fix anything. He said the hate in the El Paso shooter is one he had as well before he shifted his message to stopping hate.

“I’m going to talk and deal with [hate] appropriately,” Hudpseth said. “If [perspectives change], good. I’ve done all I need to do.”