Much will be written about the life of George N. Parks, Professor of Music and director of the legendary “Pride and Class of New England” – the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band.
In addition to his 33 years guiding the Minutemen, George was a husband, father, brother, son, student, teacher, mentor, friend and colleague. In essence, he was just like you and I. Except … he wasn’t.
Today, as George is being laid to rest, my writing serves two purposes:
1. As grief therapy for me, and
2. To frame the impact of George N. Parks’ life on all of us in music
First some background: I had the pleasure of knowing George for 30 years. We first met in 1978 when I was a senior in high school and George was burnishing his legend as the Drum Major for the renowned Reading Buccaneers Drum Corps. In 1983, my friendship and professional relationship with Thom Hannum (long time UMASS Band associate director) brought me to UMASS to help Thom with his master’s thesis and to work with the UMASS Band for a year. This was my first chance to work with George on a professional level. It was there that I learned these life lessons: work hard; do your best the FIRST time; always commit to excellence. Many of George’s lifetime fiends and colleagues were there at the same time: Heidi Sarver, Michael Klesch, Linda Hannum and of course Thom Hannum to name a few. These are some of the people who I see immediately in my mind whenever I think of George.
I left UMASS to find my own career path – first in the musical instrument industry, then settling in as a full time non-profit executive, music education advocate and researcher.
For the next 25 years George and I would frequently cross paths. Make no mistake, George and I had a warm and cordial relationship, but I would never describe it as close. Friendly, yes. Close, no.
It is because of this arms-length relationship, my perspective as a commentator and advocate for music and arts education, as a researcher in the field and as a student of its history that I can say with all conviction:
George N. Parks is a historical figure that future generations will recognize as a giant in the annals of music education.
It is fitting that George worked at his craft in the very state where Lowell Mason gave birth to public school music education in the 1830s. Mason pioneered public school music programs, just as George helped pioneer instrumental music making and reshaped the marching band as we now know it today. It is also appropriate that one of his last acts on earth was preparing his UMASS students to perform in the “Big House” where the legendary William D. Revelli led the mighty University of Michigan Marching Band. Revelli was director of the Michigan band for 36 years – George was director at UMASS for 33. William Revelli was the pioneer of the marching band during his era, just as George was a pioneer and innovator in our modern era. The Michigan Band rehearses in Revelli Hall, just as the UMASS band will soon rehearse in the new George N. Parks Band Building. The parallels go on and on.
It is no coincidence George has been referred to by friends, colleagues and columnists as a “pied piper” – not only for his UMASS band program, but for ALL music programs. Another great force of nature, John Phillip Sousa, was also referred to as a “pied piper” –responsible for sowing the seeds of the instrumental music movement in his role as “The March King” of the early 20th Century. George was cut from the same cloth – always looking for places to take the band; always prepared to put on a show. He criss-crossed the country sharing his ideas, wisdom and music with all who would listen … just as Sousa did.
As a Drum Major, conductor and showman, there was arguably none better than George. He is, without question, the greatest drum major who has ever graced a parade route, football field, or band hall. Anyone who has ever seen him work his mace – the spins, throws, signals and the triumphant planting of the mace into the field (a signature of his Drum Major performances) knows what I mean. Students flocked to his instructional academies from all over the country (and from overseas) heeding the words to “always do your best… the FIRST time.” I do not know of many teachers, of any sport, art form or profession, with more than 3,000 students showing up EVERY YEAR for weeklong boot camps led by the master of the field himself!
George personally trained three generations of leaders. These leaders are now spread across this nation in all walks of life. There are not just thousands of them or even tens of thousands of them. All told, George personally worked with more than 100,000 young men and women during the course of his career, including UMASS Band, his Drum Major Academies, plus his guest conducting and clinic appearances. He trained and shaped them – hundreds at a time – yet connected with each of them personally.
When we measure the success of a music educator based on the number of students that he or she has touched, 5,000 students is rightfully considered a big success. Now consider that the fabled “Big House” at the University of Michigan is not big enough to hold all the people George has taught through the course of his shortened career. It is through this lens that the real context of his contributions begins to come into focus. He was a pied piper, indeed.
George did not create great musicians – he helped create great people. Lots of them.
My last extended conversation with George came when I was a speaker at the College Band Directors National Association meeting in Stoors, Connecticut (fittingly, an association founded by William Revelli). I had completed a presentation that included the role of college band directors to advocate for and protect music programs in a No Child Left Behind environment. We spoke about the challenges to music education in Massachusetts and he shared his concern that musical opportunities were being denied to students. This is where his focus always was – creating opportunities for young men and women to discover their own greatness through music.
Today the memorials being posted on Facebook, Twitter and on web sites across the internet are a tribute to a generous man who has touched and inspired the lives of so many. They are the manifestation of his accomplishments, embodied in the students he was committed to inspire. This is one way his life may be measured.
Another measure will be by his family and his friends.
His professional life and his contribution to our country will be measured not by his students or colleagues – but by our nation’s historians.
When the historians have their say they will recognize George N. Parks in his rightful place – standing shoulder to shoulder with William Revelli and John Phillip Sousa. It is not a place he sought nor a comparison he would ever make. It is, however, a distinction he has so clearly earned.
And just as Revelli and Sousa are revered today, so too will be George N. Parks … far into the future.
And for all of us whose lives he has touched, we are all the better for it.
Thank you, George.
On a personal note:
To his wife, Jeanne and his children Michael and Kathryn, my sincerest and deepest condolences.
To his close colleagues and my friends Thom, Michael, Linda, Colin, Timmer and Heidi, my family and I share our thoughts and prayers with each one of you as you work through all the emotions of this sudden loss.
To honor George you may make a donation to the George N. Parks Memorial Fund, with information at https://www.umass.edu/development/give/?a=375