Saturday, September 18, 2010

George N. Parks, leader of the Power and Class of New England, the UM Minuteman Marching Band, died suddenly of a heart attack on Thursday night at age 57.

I can't think of anyone else who has had a more profound influence on me. As a high school band member, I attended his band leadership academy for two summers and his drum major academy just before my senior year in high school. The lessons I learned from those seminars gave me---an awkward, insecure flute player who talked too fast---the knowledge and courage to lead my high school's very small, struggling marching band. When it came time to choose colleges, my choice was easy. Many of my friends regarded UMass-Amherst as a "safety school," but I wanted to go there for one reason. I wanted to be a part of George Parks' band.

I was a decent marcher, but a terrible flute player. I was accepted into the UMass band as an alternate and ended up marching in the clarinet line my freshman year. It didn't matter--I was just happy to be a part of the magic. Through the band program that GNP (as we affectionately called him) built, I met some of the most wonderful people I have ever known. Many of them became good friends. But everyone I met while part of the UMMB were good people who had undoubtedly been touched by Mr. Parks' influence.

He taught us that to be a good leader, you have to be your best when things are at their worst. That you always have to be "on." That you never get a second chance at a first impression. That no matter what you do, you should always sparkle. And your eyes should always, always be "with pride." I, and so many other UMMB members, have tried our bests to carry these lessons into the real world.

Because of problems on the home front, 1997 to about 2001 was one of the most unhappy periods of my life. My parents were going through an incredibly ugly divorce and I wasn't reacting well to the upheaval. But for two fall seasons, 1998 and 1999, the UMMB provided me with a home, a safe haven. It gave me a creative outlet, tons of love and support, and a sense of belonging.

In 2000, at the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to Ball State University in Indiana. My dad was a staff member there at the time, and he'd suggested that I transfer to save money on my college tuition. It is, to date, the single biggest lapse in judgment I have ever had. Ten years later, I still deeply regret not finishing my college career at UMass. Worse, I've let myself lose touch with many people who were so important to me during that time.

The one good thing to come out of this tragedy is that, through social networking sites like Facebook, the family of UMass alumni has rebonded in a way that's unprecedented. We're all together right now, grieving the loss of a wonderful mentor, leader, and friend. George Parks meant so much to all of us, and in our time of sorrow, we're turning to each other for comfort and commiseration.

And George Parks? He left this world doing what he loves most. Shortly before his heart attack, he enthusiastically conducted the UMMB in a rousing rendition of "Fight Mass" (the school's fight song) and "My Way," which is the traditional final song of any UMMB show. He left behind an amazing legacy. Two people that I know from theater in Delaware have been affected by his passing because they are alumni of his drum major academy. It's such a small world. And there are stories like this all over the country, I'm sure.

So, to Mr. Parks, thank you so much for instilling such a sense of leadership and pride in your students, and for providing a home for lost students like me. Not one of us will ever forget you for it.