This morning I woke to the news that George N. Parks, marching band director extraordinaire at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, died suddenly at age 57 en route to Michigan, where the university's football team is playing a big game tomorrow. The sense of loss my friends and I are feeling today runs deep.
Mr. Parks, as all of us "bandos" call him, was larger than life. The thought of him retiring someday and leaving behind the program he built for 33 years was tough enough to imagine. His relentless energy drove the band's positive spirit. I was lucky to be a part of it in 1998 when the band took home the Sudler trophy, a top national award for marching bands. Though the UMass Minuteman Marching band has received accolades through the years, I feel confident saying that thousands of students would agree it's Mr. Park's message that has become his legacy. I graduated from UMass in 2000, yet I take with me every day the lessons learned there under his strong leadership.
Giving up was not an option. Neither was being absent, late, and, most importantly, anything less than enthusiastic, no matter what time you went to bed the night before. Stand up straight. Take pride in yourself and everything you do. We're a team, a family. Always care. We can do the impossible.
At daily hours-long practices, Mr. Parks prepared us for anything, motivating us from the top of the podium, bellowing out instructions, praise, direction at every turn. "Again!" he would say (or rather, "Aaaaaaagaaaaaaain!!!"). We'd run to our starting spots as fast as possible. If it wasn't quite right, it wasn't right. We'd do it again, and again, and again. We never settled for less, and when it was right, we'd know. He'd smile, and we'd be onto the next drill in no time.
One year we traveled to James Madison University in Virginia. The band there is massive -- bigger than UMass's band -- and might intimidate some, but not Mr. Parks. He didn't let it scare us either. He knew we could blow them away, and all we had to do was believe it. We did, and so we could do anything. We performed a medley of songs from the musical "Tommy," the opening number starting with a trumpet solo. I remember the notes clear as day. As soon as the horn played a few bars, the boos from the stands began. They got louder and louder and I felt myself laugh a little inside (you just wait, I thought, you just wait). A few long seconds later, our 300-member band joined in to create a wall of sound so powerful that every person in that stadium fell silent. We rocked. And so did the rain. It came down hard. We played on.
As a piccolo player I might have worried about my instrument getting wet and ruined. I didn't. When my right shoe got stuck in the mud and fell off, I might have worried about finishing the show with one foot covered only in a thin black sock. I didn't. I pressed on with the rest of my friends and gave it my all. Anything less wasn't an option. At the end of every performance, Mr. Parks would conduct, his small stature moving to every beat, pulling out giant sounds from the field, and creating an intensity that propelled us to soar. As we approached a powerful note, he'd jump several feet in the air, we'd crescendo and hit it as his feet pounded back on the podium. When we finished, we stopped, we looked up. The JMU stadium crowds -- on their home turf and with their monstrous band -- stood up and cheered, loudly. We did it, and it was awesome.
We bandos experienced that feeling time and time again at exhibitions in Pennsylvania, Canada, at Giants Stadium (to name a few), and at every single football game at our home in Amherst. We lived to make music and entertain. We worked and played hard, passionate about our music, yet eager to have fun and even dance a little, too. And that we did, all while making life-long friends and beloved memories. He taught life skills that I've come to fully realize as an alum. As an English major, I think back to writing this one paper that I just couldn't get quite right. I read it several times. Do I begin again? With so many other assignments that night, how could I? Suddenly I heard the voice: "Aaaaagaaaaaaain!" I deleted my paper and started over, as fast as I could.
Today I face challenges every day as an adult in the working world, but Mr. Parks's voice rings in my mind always. "It's not getting to the top that's the real challenge. It's staying there," he would say. It's about working as hard as you can no matter what your job, your title, or your circumstances -- even if you're the best already, or feeling the worst. Never stop learning, growing, achieving. It's up to us to do our best.
The start of every football game began with: "And now, the power and class of New England, the University of Massachusetts' Minuteman Marching band!" Mr. Parks embodied power and class, and taught us all what that truly means. As the band continues to Michigan, I have no doubt they'll show Michigan what power and class is all about. Their hearts will be heavy, but their eyes will be filled with pride.
Each and every performance finishes with these lyrics by Mr. Frank Sinatra. We sang them as a group, we meant every bit, we still sing them with the band when we go back for Homecoming. We learn, and love, as the words pour out:
And now, the end is near,
And so I face the final curtain.
My friends, I'll say it clear;
I'll state my case of which I'm certain.
I've lived a life that's full -
I've travelled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way ...
We did it our way. We thank you, Mr. Parks.
Katie McLeod, features editor at Boston.com, played piccolo with Mr. Parks and the bandos from 1996-2000.
Update: The UMass marching band continued to Michigan this weekend to play at the football game in honor of Mr. Parks. Here's a video of the group playing "My Way" at the end of the game:
Past video: Groundbreaking for new marching band center at UMass in 2009
Mr. Parks leads the "Go Umass" cheer
Senior class sings "My Way" at their formal banquet in 2004:
The band performs "Pirates of the Caribbean" in Allentown, Pa., in recent years
"My Way" on the field in 1983:
Fall of 1982: "Let's Groove"
[Photo credit: Ben Barnhart]