From professor to performer

‘Military brat,’ plant pathologist now music man

BROOKINGS – “Guitar, vocals, harmonica, oldies, contemporary rock, pop, folk, country, originals.”

So reads the orange-and-white-on-black calling card of Brookings musician Tommy Edwin. That’s his stage name, adopted by substituting his middle name, Edwin, for his surname.

He’s also Thomas Chase, 65, a retired South Dakota State University plant scientist who’s carving out a second career as a self-described one-man band.

Edwin calls himself a “classical military brat.” He was born in 1951 in upstate New York while his dad was flying missions in Korea. The late Maj. Gen. Levi Chase, United States Air Force, was a P-51 fighter pilot and double ace, with 12 aerial victories to his credit in World War II and tours of duty in wars in Korea and Vietnam. He was shot down on a mission over Burma but survived and was rescued.

“I lived in 26 different places before I moved to South Dakota,” Edwin said, relating the circuitous route that took him to playing gigs in Brookings. “We moved all over the place. We lived all over the (United) States: California, Virginia, Florida. We had tours in Germany, Okinawa and Taiwan.”

“That’s all before I was 19 or 20,” he explained. “There was awhile there, when my father was moving up the ranks, we were moving every year.”

From being an Air Force military brat Edwin moved over to the Navy, where he served four years as a radioman. Following that he attended a community college for two years, after which he transferred to State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he “trained as a forest biologist.” He went on to complete a doctorate in botany at the University of Vermont (Burlington).

Then came what Edwin called “the post-doc trail.” Continuing his education, he attended the University of Nebraska, calling that his “introduction to the Midwest, because we’d never been stationed in the Midwest. I did a post-doc down in Lincoln. Then I did another post-doc out in Berkeley (the University of California) and I did a lot of work out in the California forests on a research project.”

“My doctorate is in botany,” he added. “I was what’s called a plant pathologist and a mycologist. After the post-doc at Berkeley, I got the job here at South Dakota. I came here about 1990.”

Serving on the faculty in the SDSU Plant Science Department, he taught and did research in plant pathology for about 25 years.


All the time playing guitar

While Edwin was spending his time moving around the world on all-expenses-paid trips courtesy of the United States Air Force, he was also keeping up with the musical trends of the times.

“All the time I was playing guitar,” Edwin said. “When I was a kid music was really taking off, with the Beetles and all that, a big folk-rock explosion, then the big heavy-metal bands that came in. Everybody wanted to do that; so in Okinawa and Taiwan I started hanging out with guys in bands. I became a drummer.”

Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, had a sizable American military and diplomatic community that included a school system for dependants.

“We had garage bands and all that and we played music in the late ’60s,” Edwin said. “Then I kind of put that away as I went on to pursue an academic career. But I took up guitar and have been playing all the time.”

Retired three years ago, he bills himself a “singer, songwriter. I write some of my own material. I do a lot of ’60s, ’70s guys: some Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Jim Crowe.”

Edwin is a regular entertainer in the Sioux Falls Downtown Street Musicians program.

“They got me three or four gigs down there, very nice gigs,” he said. “You go in and play a couple hours say at one of the breweries. I played at Urban Archeology (a grouping of shops featuring antiques, vintage items and curiosities) a couple times.”

Here in Brookings, he’ll be the opener for the headliner band at Thursday’s Downtown at Sundown. In August he’ll play two gigs for Music on Main. While he’s paid to perform, Edwin admits that his music money wouldn’t be enough to keep the wolf from the door.

“Thank goodness for a good retirement system at SDSU and Social Security, ’cause my day job’s covered,” he said unabashedly. “Anything I make on music is a bonus.

“Right now I’m recovering all my costs for equipment. I must be in $7,000 or $8,000 for equipment.”

Meanwhile, his career keeps moving forward.

“Last year, nobody knew me,” he said. “So I picked up a few gigs and I did OK for a first year. This year it seems to be picking up quite a bit. I’ve had like 17 bookings this summer so far.”

And he likes what he’s doing.

“I’m having a great time,” Edwin said. “I’m getting out and playing music for people. I’m getting great feedback wherever I go and play.”

He also has hopes for the future: to cut a CD in fall and to play at the Brookings Summer Arts Festival in 2018.

“I just want to keep playing locally, build up my reputation and get more billings locally and see what happens.”

Come winter, “if things slow down” he’s considering going to Florida: “We’ve got the snowbird generation down there.”

Being able to play acoustic guitar, six-string, 12-string and harmonica gives Edwin the versatility to play the music he loves. “I can do a lot of blues, with harp (harmonica) and guitar,” he said. “I can do most all of Bob Dylan’s stuff. I usually close my shows with ‘Tambourine Man.’”

Edwin did an “all Bob Dylan show” at the Cottonwood Café on May 24, the legend’s 71st birthday. “We had a pretty good little crowd there and I did a couple sets of all-Dylan material.”

His bottom line in his new career is simple: “I’m having a gas. It’s just great.”

If you’d like to know more about the prof turned pro musician – and maybe engage him for a gig or two – send him an email: [email protected] or call him at (605) 691-4847.


Contact John Kubal at [email protected]



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