A few moments later, the phone vibrated again, indicating that there was a voice mail. I sat up in bed and pondered this unexpected turn of events. A voice mail meant that whoever it was on the other end had called on purpose. A 1:30 am phone call meant that it was bad news.
But I was exhausted, and I sensed that whatever news awaited me on that phone would keep me up all night. So I went back to sleep.
The call had been from Shelley, a dear friend from both high school and college. She had tried to reach me from halfway across the country to tell me the devastating news that I would instead learn via email when I awoke a few hours later. George Parks had died.
I went to school that day, numbly determined to honor my responsibilities, to carry on with the music, to be a good teacher. But I was late that morning. When I tried to explain my tardiness to my students, I faltered and began to weep uncontrollably. I saw my own sadness reflected on their faces as they watched me fall apart. I stammered a few words, trying to explain what a remarkable man he was. I knew I was falling short of the task.
My first encounter with George Parks was in the fall of 1994. I was a freshman in high school, a flute player in the marching band, and I was standing on a UMass practice field for band day. I was surrounded by thousands of other high school band members, and we were part of a Herculean effort to come together as one massive halftime band. Towering over us atop rickety scaffolding was an impossibly energetic man who seemed unaware of just what a ludicrous prospect that was. Over a tinny long ranger he asked us what felt like the most important question in the world:
“How are your feet?”
In thunderous unison we shouted our carefully rehearsed response: “TOGETHER!”
“Stomach?” he queried.
“IN!” we replied.
“Chest?” he challenged.
“OUT!” we insisted.
“Shoulders?” he inquired.
“BACK!” we cried.
"Elbows?" he urged.
"FROZEN!" we shouted.
“Chin?” he demanded.
“UP!” was our fervent declaration.
“Eyes?” As was his custom, he asked us this one three times, just to drive home the point. And each time we replied with even greater conviction:
I was hooked. From that day on I looked forward to band day like a child looks forward to Christmas. I couldn’t wait to watch the massive UMass Minuteman Marching Band take an entire stadium by storm with their energy, their enthusiasm, and their power and class. I was enthralled by the thundering battery, the powerful brass, and the colorful flags. Most of all, I was mesmerized by their magnetic leader.
Two years later I would beg my band director to make me his drum major, and he would send me to Drum Major Academy to study with George Parks himself. For a week under scorching August sun I learned how to march, conduct, and throw a mace. I learned how to correct my fellow band members with praise-suggestion-praise and how to exude an air of true leadership. “You are at your best when things are at their worst,” he would tell us. Whether faced with sunburn or pouring rain or mosquitoes or fatigue, our job as drum majors was to radiate enthusiasm. “Sparkle, HUT!” he would command, and we would widen our eyes with intense joy.
It was during my second summer at DMA that I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I had to go to UMass for college. And finally, in the fall of 1998, I was a freshman in the UMMB, and this legend, this larger-than-life figure became … my band director.
The marching band was everything I thought it would be. College was not. I struggled to find my place in a music department that quickly began to feel like a pair of jeans that was one size too small. I was a voice major, but I felt increasingly alienated from the choral program. I began to suspect that UMass might not be the place for me.
That is, until I ran into Mr. Parks as I was exiting the library one afternoon. He greeted me by name, as was his custom, and asked me if my year was off to a good start. I hesitated. This was the man who had taught me to NEVER complain.
“It’s … harder than I thought it would be,” I confessed. And there in the middle of campus, this tremendously busy man paused to listen to my problem. He offered a sympathetic ear and urged me not to give up on UMass. He pledged to help me resolve my conflicts in the music department. I was overwhelmed by his sincere display of concern – after all, I was only a freshman flute player, one of hundreds who played under his skillful hands. I was hardly remarkable. But apparently, to him, I was a valuable member of his team. So I decided I would stay. I finished out my freshman year, keeping a low profile in the choral department, and I returned the next fall as a flute major.
Thousands of moments like this one made up the life of George Parks. He made every one of his students feel important, remembered, and appreciated. The grief that we thousands share is a reflection of his seemingly bottomless reserves of care and attention.
This is not my first experience with mourning. In the fall of 1999 my friend Matt Cotter took a curve too fast and drove his truck off the road. He was two years my junior, a senior in high school, and I was paralyzed with grief.
It was just before the annual Allentown trip where the UMMB regularly appeared at a college band festival. I numbly approached Mr. Parks and informed him that I didn't think I could go on this trip. The grief was too fresh, the pain of losing a fellow bando too acute. And I was just one person in a 300-member band, unlikely to be missed. Surely he would understand.
To my dismay, he didn't seem to get it. I could tell he was terribly uncomfortable with the conversation, and not unsympathetic, but he quietly informed me that I had a job to do that weekend, and that the band needed me there.
I was not expecting that. I was even a little angry. Didn't he understand that I was hurting? Had he never felt the crushing, suffocating weight of grief?
But this was Mr. Parks, my hero, and I couldn’t possibly say no to him. So I went on the trip. At night, as the band slept on the floor of a high school gym, I cried into my pillow. But when I donned my uniform I held my head high and tried to remember how to sparkle, hut. I wish I could say that it was easy, that it filled the aching hole in my chest and helped me to make peace with Matt’s death. None of these were true. But it did restore a sense of normalcy, and with each passing day I learned how to move forward.
At the end of my sophomore year while sitting at a picnic table at a TBS/KKPsi event, Mr. Parks asked me to be the band recruiter. It was a full-time summer job that would be vacated when the current recruiter, my best friend Dana, would graduate in a few weeks.
To this day I am not sure why he asked me. It was a job that required frequent public speaking engagements; I got nervous in front of crowds. It required cold-calling incoming freshmen; I didn’t like to intrude. There were so many other bandos who were louder, funnier, and more charismatic than me.
But he asked me. And although I didn’t entirely understand why, there was no way I was going to say no.
And as it turns out, I was actually pretty good at recruiting. As uncomfortable as I was with certain aspects of the job, I believed in the product that I was selling. I loved band more than anything in the world. It was the landmark around which I oriented my entire college experience, and I knew it could be so for every freshman who had ever played an instrument. So I called, I encouraged, I cajoled, and I greeted three hundred and fifty bandos that August at band camp. And once the freshmen arrived, I made it my business to make sure they stayed. I wiped tears, I drove to the supermarket at midnight to buy ice for injured wrists, and I kept my door open at all hours of the night to calm their jitters. Of course, most of them didn’t need any of this. But I knew how it felt to need a little extra care, and I was determined to show those freshmen that band was the place to find it.
After graduation I landed a plum position in a beautiful seaside town that values the arts. Ironically, I was back in the choral field after I had rejected it so adamantly in college. I busied myself with the tasks of building a program, and I used all the valuable lessons that Mr. Parks had taught me. I formed my own “ad staff” to handle equipment, uniforms, and fundraising. I stuck to the mantra of praise-suggestion-praise. I insisted on perfect timeliness from my students – which they hated – and reminded them that they were building a tradition of excellence – which they loved.
Most of the time, I loved my job. Sometimes I really … didn’t. The blessings in my community far outweigh the flaws, but it is not an easy community in which to teach. In the moments that I questioned my stamina, I turned to Mr. Parks, who never gave up on his students no matter what challenges he faced on the side. Most of the time, he kept those challenges to himself. No matter what happened in faculty conference rooms and offices, he stepped onto the scaffolding each day at 4:40 with the intention of making magic. And as he gently reminded me each time I needed to hear it, so could I.
My world fell apart in the spring of 2008 when my marriage – to a fellow bando – came to an untimely end. I dreaded telling Mr. Parks, who had brought us together and instilled in us the value of commitment and perseverance. I broke the uncomfortable news over lunch one day, in one of those rare, treasured moments when I knew he was able to give me his full attention. I couldn’t look him in the eye as I gave the feeble explanation: “We music teachers are not the easiest people in the world to be married to.”
“Nope,” he replied. “Nope, we’re not.” When I finally raised my eyes, I saw no trace of judgement or disappointment on his face. He told me he was sorry, and he hugged me. I knew that would be the end of it – as eloquent as he was in front of a crowd of hundreds, he was endearingly awkward one on one. But his quiet acceptance was the only thing in the world that I needed at that moment.
That summer, at the age of twenty seven, I went out to UMass to attend Drum Major Academy. It was there that I had learned, twelve years earlier, not just how to succeed as a drum major but how to succeed in life. I knew it was time for a refresher course. I wrote down every starred thought, studying his every move. Of course, being Mr. Parks, he only let me sit on the sidelines for a few hours before roping me in to lead a conducting lesson. Life was not meant to be passively observed – especially not at DMA. At the end of the week I returned home rejuvenated – being back at UMass with my band family was like water for a parched spirit.
So in September 2010, reeling from the loss of my hero, I knew where I needed to go. Not surprisingly, I was not the only one who needed to come home. We alumni gathered on the grass outside Old Chapel, the beloved former home of the UMMB. Although the band had been evicted and the building closed before my time, I knew that it held a sacred place in the heart of every bando who had come before me – and therefore, it held a sacred place in mine as well.
We sat on the grass together, projecting old band videos onto the façade of the building. Some of us met each other for the first time that night, separated by decades but united in our shared experience. It’s funny how the UMMB tends to blur social boundaries. After all these years, I tend to forget who I marched with and who I didn’t. They are all my friends.
There were two such people there that night – dear friends who were mostly before my time – and when they offered to give a Chapel tour to me and a few of my classmates, we jumped at the chance. We crept into the darkened building, illuminating our way with our cell phones, because turning on the lights would attract the unwanted attention of campus security. Brandon and Pete were our sherpas, regaling us with stories of their days in Chapel and warning us to watch our step in the spots where the floorboards had given out.
As we ascended the stairs to the second floor I had a flashback to a day when, in my senior year of high school, I had visited the Old Chapel. For reasons I don’t entirely recall, my high school band director had brought me there to visit the home of the band I so idolized. I remember peering around the corner and glimpsing Mr. Parks in his office. I remember praying that I wouldn’t say anything stupid.
Now the room was long empty, and the walls were crumbling. Although the rest of the building was shrouded in darkness, someone had left the light on in his office. I felt a palpable change in the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold. The air felt somehow thicker, like I suddenly had to give conscious thought to the act of breathing. I felt the muscles in my chest tighten as I looked around the small, empty room. Brandon began filling the emptiness, positioning himself right where Mr. Parks had sat for years, tracing the frame of a desk that had long since been removed. I filled in the picture further, imagining where the heaps of clutter would have piled up.
Pete and I lingered for a moment as the rest of the group headed down the hall. "I can really feel him in here," Pete murmured. I nodded. So he felt it, too. A few tears spilled onto my cheeks.
We went back outside, lit candles, and toasted our fallen leader. We told stories, laughed, sighed, and eventually fell silent. As night crept on toward morning, one by one, the crowd began to dissipate. I knew it was time to go. But first I wanted to see his office one more time.
I entered the building alone this time and made my way through the darkness and up the stairs. Alone and fatigued, I began to weep freely. I settled on the floor of his office, surrounded by dust and debris, and fought against the silence with my sobs. But the silence had the advantage; I was quickly exhausted and allowed myself to become part of it. I rose, weary, and stood in the doorway, surveying the empty room for the last time. I murmured a quiet goodbye.
Faintly but clearly, as if heard on a long ranger from across campus, I heard his voice in my left ear: "Sparkle, HUT!"
There he went again, giving me an impossibly tall order in the face of my unspeakable grief. Sometimes I wish the man would just let me sink into my own weakness. But for sixteen years he has insisted that I can do better, and I have learned not to argue with him about this.
"Okay," I whispered across the abyss. "I'll try.”