I was 18 and about to embark on my greatest adventure: college. Not just any college, mind you, but the University of Massachusetts—a city-size university with more students than the entire population of my hometown!
My parents and I—my parents more so, as I would have been content to stay home and marry my high school sweetheart—thought that the best way to acclimate to this new environment was to participate in something familiar. Like the marching band.
I had played the flute since 4th grade, and was in my 35-member high school marching band for four years. This prepared me for the UMass Marching Band about as much as watching Cinderella prepares you for falling in love!
But there I was, 8:00 a.m. walking a mile across campus to the athletic fields and my first day of band camp. A week before the fall semester, campus was relatively empty, except for the 250 plus “bandos” making their way across the damp and misty field on that August morning.
I wish I could tell you the first moment I saw George N. Parks that day. I wish I could describe the awe of witnessing the dynamic bandleader with flaming red hair and piercing eyes demand our attention—and our commitment.
“Band, ATTENTION!” he called out. And we did—stand at attention:
Feet! (Together!) Stomach! (In!) Chest! (Out!) Shoulders! (Back!) Elbows! (Frozen!) Chin! (Up!) Eyes! (With pride!) Eyes! (With pride!)
We also did hours of calisthenics, and marching, and practicing that week. From sun up to sun down, and on into the evening, we learned how to march, how to march and play, how to memorize music. We learned to follow tiny patterns of hand-printed dots on pieces of paper that somehow became grand human-designs on football fields from Massachusetts to Delaware.
At George Park’s passionate command, we became giant triangles, rotating Olympic circles, mutating abstract patterns, and perfect UMass Ms. At his command, we trekked across campus five days a week for practice and home games and bus trips, from those first days in August through the bitter cold of November. At his command, we became dedicated, focused, enthusiastic young adults that semester.
George Parks had that kind of presence.
In Foxboro, we stood at attention for five minutes while he waited for the entire stadium to be quiet. He expected it, and 50,000 New England Patriots fans obliged.
In Delaware, at the end of a raucous football game, not one person left the stadium. Instead, they chanted “encore” and waited for us to take the field for a repeat performance of our half-time show.
Audiences stood and hearts pounded as all 250 of us sang in Russian, then performed the 1812 Overture while miniature cannons fired off behind us.
And in the end, when the performances were over, we would gather around George Parks at the 50 yard line to sing “My Way.” He reminded us we were the BEST BAND IN THE UNIVERSE, and we responded, our EYES, WITH PRIDE! (watch video)
I was only in the UMass Marching Band for the blink of an eye—that one semester my freshman year—but, 25+ years later, it remains one of my favorite stories to tell. And one of my favorite characters was the wildly enthusiastic and inspiring George Parks, who passed away on September 16, 2010 at the age of 57.
• • •
Photos by Jill Freeze and David May from the In Memory of George N. Parks Facebook page, which—as of this posting—has close to 11,000 “fans.” A testament to the impact of this one man.