Arthur Russell Custer was born in Manchester, Connecticut on April 21, 1923. Custer demonstrated an early interest in music, playing on a piano in the family home as a child. In fifth grade he joined the Manchester Green Grammar School Band as a drummer. Custer graduated from Manchester High School in 1940, and began studying engineering at Hillyer Junior College in Hartford, Connecticut where he graduated Hillyer with an Associate’s degree in Science.
World War II temporarily interrupted Custer’s studies, and from 1942 until 1946 he served in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot in the South Pacific, attaining the rank of lieutenant junior grade. After leaving the Navy, Custer returned to college, this time taking up the study of music. He graduated from the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1949, with a major in music education. Custer worked his way through college by playing in a jazz band which, after he graduated, continued playing together once a year until the 1990s.
After graduation, rather than pursuing a career in music education, Custer began studying composition at the University of Redlands in California. He studied under Paul Pisk at Redlands, and was instructed in the twelve-tone technique of composition. He graduated from Redlands in 1951 with a Master’s degree in Music. In 1952, Custer took a position as Assistant Professor of Music at Kansas Wesleyan University, becoming the head of the Department of Fine Arts in 1954. He left Kansas Wesleyan in 1955 for a position as Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Omaha, where he acted as Director of Bands, and also taught a course on classical music.
Upon receiving his PhD, Custer took a position as the Director of the Music Section of the American School in Seville, Spain. He moved to Madrid in 1960 when he was given the position of Supervisor of Music for the U.S. Air Force Dependent Schools in Spain .During his time in Spain, 1960-61, he hosted a Sunday morning program, “Music for Music’s Sake,” on Armed Forces radio.
Custer returned to the United States in 1962, becoming the Assistant Dean for Fine Arts at the University of Rhode Island. While in this position, he helped organize the Festival of Contemporary Art at URI in 1963. Custer was also active in the arts community at the state level, holding positions as President of the Rhode Island Music Teacher Association, the Vice-President of the Rhode Island Fine Arts Council, and the Vice-President of the Eastern Division of the Music Teachers National Association. Custer left the University of Rhode Island in 1965 to become the Dean of the Philadelphia Musical Academy. While in Philadelphia, he also held the position of Vice-President of the Philadelphia Composers Forum.
Custer moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Custer became the Director of a U.S. Office of Education project, the Metropolitan Educational Center in the Arts, that developed arts centers and programs for children in public schools. He also wrote the program notes for the St. Louis Symphony during his time there. He remained in St. Louis until 1970, when he returned to Rhode Island to become the Director of The Arts in Education Project for the Rhode Island Council of the Arts. In 1973 he was named Composer-in-residence for the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.
Arthur Custer died on September 17, 1998 at the age of 75.