Casey Aro has been playing music for pretty much all of his life. He's known throughout the Iron Range and farther for his derby hat-clad head and for playing a mix of everything from folksy tunes to gospel songs.
To 66 former foster care children, he's also played the role of a father.
He's played many benefits over the years and now, after experiencing a series of strokes, is the recipient of one, a position his wife of nearly 45 years, Lynette Aro, said he's found unusual.
"When we talked to him about it, he said, 'We play benefits — we don't have them,'" Lynette said. "He was just a little shocked by it. But we've both been very humbled to see how many friends we have out there. All the people who have prayed for us, sent well-wishes, said they're coming to the benefit. It's just a different angle than we're used to."
The lifelong Zim resident has been a mostly self-taught banjo and guitar player since he was a child. He started playing with his father Bobby Aro's band in high school. Bobby was known for playing folksy Finnish-American music and had his own show on a local radio station for years. Casey would travel with his father and brother across the country and serve as both a guitar and banjo player as well as roadie.
He and Lynette have known each other for "pretty much all of our lives."
"His sister, Robin, was a good friend of mine. He was just a pest. But he hung around long enough to become my best friend. And that's been our relationship the whole time," Lynette said.
Oct. 30 will mark their 45th anniversary. After marrying, the couple moved to Alaska for two years and explored the state before moving back to Zim.
Shortly after moving home, the couple decided to become foster parents.
"Back then, you couldn't do both foster and adoption, so we decided we could help the most kids by fostering, so that's the route we took," Lynette said. "In fact, we got our first kids before we'd even finished the orientation classes. They had a sister and brother they wanted to keep in the same school and same area, so we said OK and got some hands-on learning right off the bat."
His daughter, Gerri Erickson, was one of the couple's first foster kids. She'd lost both of her parents and moved in with the Aros when she was 12.
"Right away, you became one of their kids," Erickson said. "You were never treated like a foster child; you were family. And you couldn't have asked for better parents. They'd go to your games, take us swimming, play games. He was just as much as a big kid as the rest of us."
Casey started sharing his own mix of music with audiences in the 1980s. He did public library tours, played at the St. Louis County Fair, at the Laskiainen festival in Palo, nursing homes — anywhere that would have him. And for 18 years, he played banjo on the trolley at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm, back when it was known as Ironworld.
"He did 14 shows a day, 20 minutes each. He had one day a week off from April through September," Lynette said. "Then he'd go play at the campfires at Sugar Lake Lodge in Grand Rapids for years and years. He'd play everywhere."
In fact, it was during a music gig at a nursing home in Eveleth back in August that he realized something wasn't quite right.
"He kept hearing his guitar go out of tune. He wasn't getting the pressure on the strings right," Erickson said. "He went home and tried another one and that one seemed off, too. Eventually, he agreed to go and get checked out."
Casey had suffered from a series of mini-strokes followed by a brain-bleed stroke. He was transferred to Duluth and seemed "perfectly fine" for the first few days, according to Erickson.
"We visited Friday and he was sitting up, playing with his grandkids. Then Saturday morning, he had a couple of seizures and a couple more the next day and that's what really put him under," Erickson said. "But he's a tough guy and he's doing really well. They have a very positive outlook for him at Miller-Dwan, so I feel hopeful."
Erickson said the family has received support from the community since Casey went into the hospital.
"It's amazing to see the outpouring of donations and cards and prayers," Erickson said. "It's been amazing to see the community rally behind them during this difficult time."
Aro is still recovering at Miller-Dwan after a three-week stint in intensive care. He's receiving occupational, physical, speech and mental therapy. Lynette said the part of his recovery he's most eager for is to be able to play music again.
"Right now, his instruments are just sitting here lonely," Lynette said. "Eventually, we'll start working with them again so he can continue to entertain."
If you go
What: Spaghetti feed and silent auction for Casey Aro. There will also be an open jam throughout the event; bring your instrument to share your talent.
Where: McDavitt Town Hall, 9042 Zim Road, Zim
When: 3-8 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $10 per plate; kids 5 and under free. Donations for the auction or otherwise will be accepted.