Diane Dunn knew her long-lost harp was somewhere behind Yorba Linda Street’s mile of locked doors. So she started ringing doorbells. She had recently found her first clues in 40 years: the street name, and an empty harp case with her name on it.
Diane Dunn’s search for her lost harp didn’t end on Yorba Linda Street, but these clues eventually led her to the basement of Howard Music Hall, where Hillsdale’s music department was preparing to receive its first harp.
Through this reconnection, the college lost its first harp, gained another, and orchestrated a happy reunion in the process.
Diane Dunn, a professional harpist from Walled Lake, Michigan, began taking harp lessons after the unique instrument intrigued her at age 14.
“I was sitting in front of the harpist, who had a gorgeous concert grand harp and I was fascinated because it had pedals and moving parts and colored strings,” Dunn said. “I watched and heard the sounds that came out of that instrument, and it was beautiful.”
In 1962, after only two years of lessons, Dunn’s teacher suggested that she buy a concert grand harp, since she had the potential to become a professional harpist.
It was a big step both musically and financially, since Dunn’s new white maple concert harp cost more than a Cadillac — a fact not lost on her father, Dunn said.
By the time Dunn was 18, she was playing professionally as a solo harpist. Though she chose not to play in the orchestra at Albion College (the director had never seen a harp before — a testament to the uniqueness of the instrument, but not to the hope of a valuable musical education for the harpist, she said), Dunn shared her music with her friends.
“She used to play for friends and for our sorority girls and for parties and so forth,” Dunn’s former college roommate Irene Fleming said. “I loved hearing the harp and liked Diane very much as a friend, and we had a wonderful time.”
Dunn continued to play at events and weddings on weekends and vacations from her work as a middle school science teacher.
Then in 1970, her father passed away, and Dunn’s expensive harp returned to the front of her family’s mind.
“When my father passed away at age 56, my mom came to me and said, ‘Now that daddy’s gone, I’m so scared about money. I need to sell your harp. Daddy and I bought it for you, and now I need to sell it and get the money out of it.’ … I was so mad at her. I was grieving the loss of my father, and now my harp was gone, too?” Dunn said. “That’s the last I saw my harp, was in the spring of 1970.”
Eventually, Dunn bought a new instrument and built a business as a solo harpist after she retired from teaching. She purchased a new, unadorned harp from Lyon & Healy, but she couldn’t forget her old harp.
“I kept thinking, ‘My harp is still out there somewhere,’” Dunn said.
Though Dunn searched newspapers and asked around for years, she didn’t find any clues as to the harp’s whereabouts until 2009, when a young musician from Royal Oak, Michigan, called her about an old case where he had been storing his cables and other equipment. The case had Dunn’s name on it, as well as the serial number of her harp — No. 511417.
“I opened that wooden case and I smelled how it smelled when we first bought it, and it took me back in time to when I was a young woman and the harp and the case were new,” Dunn said. “That case was the first clue in 40 years.”
The musician had found the case sitting on a curb on Yorba Linda Street, so Dunn walked the mile-long street, going door to door with old photographs of the harp in hand. Three days later, she found a woman who remembered hearing harp music from a house down the street. She gave Dunn the phone number of Amy Bachelder, the current owner’s daughter.
Dunn discovered that Bachelder’s brother, Christopher, inherited the harp from his mother, who had bought it secondhand in 1970. As an employee in the finance department of Hillsdale College, Christopher Bachelder was planning to donate the instrument to Hillsdale’s music department.
“I knew my mom would rather have someone playing the harp rather than just having it sit as a piece of furniture in my house,” he
But Dunn had other plans.
“If I could intercept that harp before the official papers go through, I could at least see if it was mine,” Dunn said.
Fleming said she got the phone call out of nowhere: “Quick!” Dunn said, “Can you go with me on a road trip? I’m going to Hillsdale.”
The two found the harp in a practice room in the basement of Howard Music Hall, waiting for the final donation papers to go through.
“I had such a visceral response to seeing it. I don’t know if all the blood went to my head, but I got this pounding headache and had to sit down,” Dunn said. “I thought I was going to have a stroke.”
After 40 years, both harpist and harp had changed, but Dunn recognized it immediately.
“The lacquer had tarnished with time and turned a brownish-orange … I sat down and played a few arpeggios and glissandos, and it had the most gorgeous sound,” Dunn said. “It had aged well. It had been well cared for, and now it had an old, mellow instrument sound.”
Since Dunn’s photographs didn’t match the mature instrument, Bachelder was skeptical about Dunn’s miraculous reunion. But when Dunn identified the harp by serial number — 511417 — and by her name written on the practice bench, Dunn’s ownership was beyond doubt.
“I felt like a hostage taker,” Christopher Bachelder said. “I felt like I should just give the harp back, but I had already promised it to Hillsdale.”
Dunn and Bachelder pulled some strings to ensure neither Dunn nor Hillsdale had to remain harpless.
“Look, if you buy Hillsdale a new harp, I’ll give you this one for free,” Bachelder said.
Dunn purchased the harp from Bachelder for about $12,000 and referred them to a music retailer that would help Hillsdale start their harp program again.
“We all won because the money I paid him, he used as a dedicated donation to Hillsdale College so they could buy their first harp for the orchestra,” Dunn said. “Hillsdale College thought they finally had a harp. They thought it was new; they didn’t know it was 50 years old.”
The college also didn’t know it was depriving a woman of her beloved harp, one she had grown to understand and recognize even after 40 years of absence.
Harps age in much the same way people do — their sound mellows out. They change color. They get beat up, and patched up — and some of them, like the first harp donated to Hillsdale’s music department, get lost and found again.