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Band Director Plays Final Encore

Originally posted in The Tribune Review, May 4, 2012

When Travis Todd's college band stopped measuring up to his expectations, the Hempfield Area High School graduate considered quitting.

He wasn't happy with the new band director. Another Hempfield grad had left the band to focus on other studies.

But Todd, 19, said quitting was not an option for one overriding reason: his former high school band director, Roderick T. Booker.

"At different times, I wanted to quit," said Todd, a biology major at Mt. Union College in Alliance, Ohio. "I'd want to quit, but in thinking of Dr. Booker, and what would he think of me if I quit, then I decided I just have to keep doing it."

Todd is one of thousands of Hempfield students -- "my kids," Booker calls them -- who played under his direction during 35 years with the district.

During 29 years as high school band director, Booker molded its marching band into one that earned an invitation in January 2005 to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. Along the way, he made many friends and many submarine sandwiches.

But even as invitations arrive daily for the band to play at events that include the 2008 Olympics in China and the reopening of an amphitheater in Sydney, Australia, Booker has decided to retire at the end of the school year.

Booker said he needed to take advantage of a health insurance incentive the district may never again offer. Eligible retirees this year will retain their group health care coverage with the district until age 65.

"I wanted to make sure I take care of my family, with the medical things," Booker, 57, said. "I wasn't ready to retire, but you have to do what you have to do."

The first note

If not for his grandfather, Ollis Dudley Todd, Booker may never have pursued a career in music.

When Booker was 5 years old, his grandfather took him to see his hometown high school band practicing on the football field in Leechburg.

"We sat in the stands and watched them practice, the big music and the shiny instruments, and that left an impression on me," Booker said.

By fourth grade, he took up the trumpet. As a seventh-grader, he was into drums. He wanted to become a band director.

But opportunities for black men in small Pennsylvania towns in the late 1960s were limited.

"I had some friends who got jobs," Booker said. "The community was almost all white, so my friends were all white, and they would get a job and I wouldn't. Sometimes, the owner would take an application I'd filled out and throw it in the garbage can right in front of my face when I was in high school."

Booker said his study habits landed him only average grades, mainly because he felt the best he could hope for would be a job in a mill. But his grades were good enough to get him into Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a historically black college.

"That Cheyney experience was probably one of the greatest experiences I've ever had, and I'll tell you why," Booker said. "It gave me, as a young black kid who was told you could never amount to anything, that you could never become anything, a chance to see other black people succeeding. By doing that, I gained the backbone to say, 'I can do this.'"

Booker transferred to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "It was tough. I'm not kidding you, I struggled. But I was able to get a bachelor's degree in music," he said.

Next stop: Hempfield

Booker received job offers from 26 colleges and school districts. Most wanted him to work in public relations, a field he briefly pursued in college.

He accepted an offer to teach music at Hempfield because the district was close to his grandmother, Ollie Mae Lovelace Todd.

Leroy Ferri, a retired Hempfield music teacher, recalled the first time he met Booker. It was 1970, and Ferri and a co-worker were sitting outside one of the elementary schools when Booker drove up.

"This car pulled up and this young gentleman came over to the car and he said, 'Can you tell me where Wendover Junior High is?' and I proceeded to say a few words to him, and he said he was going to be applying for a music job," Ferri said. "My co-worker at the time said, 'Someday, that guy's going to be my boss.'

"I'm looking at this guy, and I said, no way," Ferri said, smiling. "Well, the moral of the story is that Rod became our department head and our boss."

A dream realized

Booker started with Hempfield in 1971. His first challenge was to convince students to join the band at Stanwood Junior High. Only 23 students regularly showed up for rehearsals.

"Some people were just worried," Booker said. "I was the first black teacher in the junior high school. That was different for them."

Booker sought help from an administrator who advised him just to "be himself." Booker set up a jazz ensemble that quickly drew in students. He persuaded students from three elementary schools to form a band that later attracted 90 members.

He expanded the junior high program to include trips to play at colleges and visits from college bands to perform.

In 1977, Booker was attending Penn State University over the summer to earn his doctorate when he was named band director at the high school. There was no time to celebrate. Booker got the word one week before the start of band camp.

"I took my finals on a Wednesday and came home," Booker said. "I didn't have a show. I didn't have a drill. I didn't have music. I didn't have anything."

With the help of a friend, Roger White, Booker managed to put together a program in two days. For two weeks, Booker weathered criticism from some in the community who questioned his qualifications.

But then Booker and the band took to Jeannette Senior High's football field for his first halftime show.

"I'm scared to death," Booker said. "My first public performance is going to be in our backyard. It's time for the half, and nobody's leaving the stands. Nobody got up to leave and get coffee. They all sat there."

By the time the band had finished its performance, Booker knew he'd found his calling.

"I left the field, and I remember (school director) Betty Valerio standing up and giving me the OK sign," Booker said. "And the crowd loved it. I remember that like it was yesterday, and that started my career."

'Mine for life'

When Booker took over as director, the marching band had about 120 students. Under his direction, it grew, at times fielding nearly 300 players.

"When I took over, they were a competitive band, and I broke away from that," Booker said. "My band got bigger. It became more successful because a competitive band is about the director, and the band I have is about the kids.

"This year, I had 250 students total," Booker said. "But I don't say that. I say I have one person that's 250 parts. So we all get the same praise, the same glory."

"He's just such a personable person, no matter how minute a student's problem is, he is always concerned about it," said Valerio. "That's what draws kids to him."

Timothy Krempecki worked for a short time with Booker, and two of his children later played in Hempfield's band.

"He's a class act himself, and he tried to instill that into the kids so they would grow up with their heads held high," Krempecki said. "He didn't just teach the kids about music. He made sure the kids had manners and that they stayed straight."

Booker always has told his band students that they are "mine for life."

Keeping that promise has sometimes meant taking late-night phone calls from former students. Or grieving alongside students at funerals for their loved ones. Or celebrating with them as they enter into marriage.

"For 35 years, I've told them that once you are mine, you are mine for life," Booker said. "And that's funny because some of them will come back and say to me, 'I'm still your kid, aren't I?'

"And they talk about things. I've had kids on my doorstep at 3 o'clock in the morning. College kids come back and they want to talk to you. I've had parents come and say, 'Come talk to my kid.' "

Eleanor Owens said Booker once went out of his way to see her daughter, Pam, 15 years after she graduated. Pam was in town for a visit and wanted to see Booker at the high school, but an illness canceled the plans. Booker made sure to stop by the house to chat with her.

Parents and students alike realized Hempfield had something special in Booker. They rallied to his side in the early 1990s, when the school board suspended him and apparently considered a new director.

"How could you not support him?" said Tom Harrold, a past president of the band parents association. "There were meetings of 400 to 500 people, all concerned, to strategize on how to keep him."

One night, in a show of support, parents and students paraded -- with instruments -- in front of Booker's Hempfield Township residence. Not long after, the board reinstated Booker.

List of accomplishments

The trip to Pasadena sits near the top of Booker's list of accomplishments, but there were others along the way that he holds just as dear.

Playing Greengate Mall at Christmas for the first time. Taking his band to Harrisburg to play for then-Gov. Bob Casey. Performing in downtown Greensburg with the school's jazz band for President Clinton.

Another standout memory is the time he returned to his hometown of Leechburg, where he marched Hempfield's band down Main Street during community days.

"Leechburg -- a place where at one time I couldn't get a job washing cars -- and I take my band down there and people are screaming and hollering and celebrating," Booker said. "But my hometown has been good to me, otherwise. There are loyal fans in Leechburg now."

More important were the little accomplishments.

"The big thing with me is watching a child grow and actually knowing that I taught them something, even if it's just getting a kid to march eight steps and come out on the right foot he's supposed to come out on," Booker said. "That's an accomplishment."

New horizons

Retirement will allow Booker more time to spend with his wife, Loretta, and children, Vincent, 29, and Alicia, 26.

Booker said he may seek work as a fundraiser.

During Booker's 29 years with the band, it made about $16 million by making and selling sub sandwiches.

When he first started, Booker said, the band sold only 2,000 to 3,000 subs a year because it took so long for band members and parents to make them.

"It took eight hours," Booker said. "Of course, you made the entire sub yourself. You got the bun. You got the meat. You got the cheese. You got the lettuce. You did it all.

"I said, 'I've got to change this.' I remember sitting with (past band parents' association president) Gib Owens and some other people and I said, 'Henry Ford has an assembly line process, why don't we do the same?'"

Using that system, parents and students can make as many as 3,000 subs in an hour.

Booker may also look to work in recruiting or consulting or as a motivational speaker.

Travis Todd knows Booker has what it takes to sell others on pursuing their dreams.

"I'm a really good student, and I didn't need Dr. Booker or the band to succeed," Todd said. "But if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have had the guts to leave the state and to leave my friends. The band provided an opportunity for me to have the confidence to succeed."

By the numbers

The road to San Antonio to march in the Fiesta Flambeau Parade was paved with thousands of subs for the Hempfield Area High School band.

Members and parents made and sold 124,268 subs during the 2005-06 school year.

The 124,268 subs used:

  • 497,072 slices of chipped ham

  • 497,072 slices of cheese

  • 372,804 slices of salami

  • 248,536 slices of honey ham

  • 18,800 pounds of lettuce

  • 11,250 pounds of tomatoes

  • 7,820 pounds of onions

If the number of subs sold during Roderick T. Booker's 29 years as Hempfield Area High School band director were laid end to end, they would stretch 665 miles.

Total money raised through sub sales: $16 million

Total money raised with other fundraisers: $3.6 million. Includes income from candy sales, fruit sales, banquets, band festivals and entertainment books.

Sources: Roderick T. Booker and Hempfield band parent Leanne Griffith


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