EUGENE, Ore. (AP) _ Through the blare of rowdy kids tuning their instruments, the 76-year-old man with regal white hair, a black cane and a tarnished French horn slowly makes his way to his seat in the brass section.

Retired pipe fitter John Suta is in his third year with the Roosevelt Middle School band. The eighth-graders he plays with no longer see him as an oddity, but as an inspiration who plays with a passion for music and thick fingers gnarled by a lifetime of hard work.

``He is exactly like a middle school band player, even though he is older,'' said 13-year-old Anna Richardson.

``Without music I would just as soon be dead,'' Suta said, summing up a philosophy that through the years has led him to take up opera, the piano and the harmonica.

And it was what drove him to walk into the middle school's beginning band class and ask for the chance to learn how to play a horn he had always loved. Without hesitating, the teacher told him, ``Take a seat.''

Since then, Suta has advanced from ``Mary Had a Little Lamb'' to Beethoven, from sixth-grade to eighth-grade band.

Josh Mack took over leadership of the Roosevelt band program this year and inherited Suta. ``I just knew he had to be there,'' Mack said.

Suta's love for music goes back to his childhood in Aurora, Ill., when his mother would sing songs in her native Hungarian.

He grew up studying singing with an accompanist for the Chicago Opera and speaking German, Hungarian, Romanian and Italian in his immigrant neighborhood.

After World War II, he studied to become an opera singer, but soon discovered his love of music wasn't enough to pay the bills, so he raised two sons on a pipe fitter's wages.

But music never left Suta's life. After he retired, he teamed with a friend on piano and sang at weddings, picnics and senior centers. And on his own he even sang the national anthem at a few University of Oregon basketball games.

Through the years, he always remembered the days when his brother and a friend would go house to house at Christmas, playing carols on a violin and French horn.

Those memories came flooding back four years ago when he spotted an old French horn in a Salvation Army store.

``I had that horn in my ear,'' Suta said. ``I saw the tag. It said 85 bucks. I said to the lady, `What's your best price. I don't have 85 bucks in my budget. Will you go $75?'' She said, `Yes.''

He tried a few adult classes to learn the instrument but they were all too advanced. That's what led him to Roosevelt.

Despite heart trouble and nerve damage in his legs that make it difficult to walk, Suta rarely misses practice and is at every concert.

The young horn players look to him for guidance and, in turn, they help him.

About a year ago, he stumbled in the small cluttered house where he lives alone, falling on his French horn and crushing the bell. He dropped the instrument off at a local music store, not knowing how he would afford to pay for the repairs.

When Suta returned to the store the next day, the horn was fixed _ the Roosevelt Middle School band members had pitched in to pay for the work.

``It almost knocked me over,'' Suta said, crying. ``You hear about all the things youngsters do, all this and that. But you don't hear the beauty of the children.''