Thursday, October 8, 2009

Take it Back

Dear Mr. Smicklas:

I'm sure you probably don't remember me. I was one of your students when you were the band director at Nordonia High School back in the 80's. I was one of the "Donnelly Girls." I played alto and baritone saxophones in concert band, and was on the drill team in marching band.

You're probably more likely to remember my husband, Alan Emery. He was the concert-t-shirt-wearing, smarmy kid with the southern accent who's antics probably provoked you to question your decision to go into teaching. He drove you crazy, but you put up with him because he was a tremendously talented flugabone and bass clarinet player. He, along with a few fellow band mates, once TP'd your house. Instead of calling the police, you invited them in to enjoy pizza with you, your wife, and two toddler boys. Ring any bells?

Anyway, a few of us former Nordonia Band members reunited this past weekend for a football game back at the old alma mater. Naturally your name came up several times as we reminisced about our shared past. Like all intense leaders, there were several varying opinions regarding your teaching style. It was then that I realized something. I've never told you how my four years under your leadership has directly affected the way I've carried out the rest of my life. I wanted to remedy that today.

You took over as Band Director at Nordonia my freshman year. The band had always been pretty good, thanks to the supreme dedication of the elementary/jr. high band director, Mr. Kirk. But you came along and told us we could be better. You told us we were sloppy and undisciplined, but that we had the potential to be great, and you were going to get us there.

It started at band camp. Don't you just hate what that horrible movie, "American Pie," has done to the perception of band camp? Thanks to a few clueless Hollywood idiots, everyone now believes that band camp is some retreat in the woods where everyone paddles around in canoes and does unspeakable things with flutes. We know better don't we? Band camp under your leadership took place at Ashland College. We spent one week in the hot, humid month of August, sleeping in a dorm, eating cafeteria food and marching. Lots and lots of marching. We literally marched from sun-up to sun-down. In that short week we learned, and then perfected, the pre-game and half-time routines for the upcoming football season. Kids would be dropping like flies, fainting from heat exhaustion. You'd simply have one of the band parents get them some water, sit-out for a minute, then go right back to marching.

You had a saying that everyone learned very quickly and soon hated with a deep passion: "Take it Back." This was uttered when we'd get half-way through a routine and you'd see something you didn't like. You'd then blow your whistle from your perch on top of a ladder, pick up your megaphone and cite the culprit's error. Then you'd say, "Take it back," and we'd all head to the end zone, ready to start all over for the billionth time. I was once the reason to "Take it Back." I was exhausted and stepped-off too early in the cadence count. I knew my error immediately and cringed when the inevitable shrill of your whistle echoed off the rooftops of the surrounding campus buildings. "Take it back for Donnelly," you said into your megaphone. I turned to my fellow band mates and tried to apologize with my eyes as we all walked back in tired silence to the end zone. They all forgave me, comrades in fatigue that they were!

It's funny though. As tiring as those long practices were, we still found time for plenty of antics in the evenings. This included freshman slaves being put through shaving cream-saturated initiations and other harmless hazing pranks. I know you always turned a blind eye to the "festivities," but I'm pretty sure you were aware of what was going on. I think you also knew that a really tremendous thing happens when you're with a group of your peers, working harder than you ever have before: long lasting, deep friendships emerge. When you have to rely on each other for encouragement and support, and when you're really quite sure you can't "take it back" one more time, some pretty tight bonds begin to form.

You showed us how tough we never knew we were. At the end of some of those long, hot days when every muscle ached and we were physically and mentally spent, you'd say, "Do it again." I remember quite distinctly thinking, "I can't," and believing it with every fiber of my tired, sore body. But guess what? I did it again. And again. I DID have it in me--only YOU seemed to know that.

As you well know, all that work paid-off. We were a tremendous, classy, disciplined unit. We performed not only at football games, but state-wide band shows and competitions. There were none like us. While other local schools sported "Dance Band" style shows, with sloppy, showy disco numbers, you told us that our style was "Class." They executed "Saturday Night Fever" selections and Beach Boys medleys. We marched with complete precision, thigh parallel to the ground, and performed classical numbers like "New World Symphony" and "Tchaikovsky's 4th."

Everyone knows that being a part of marching band is considered highly nerdish. No one who is a band member could ever be included in the group of popular, cool kids. I guess our school was no exception. But you gave us something even the cool kids couldn't deny us -- RESPECT. We were damn good, and the whole school knew it.

Your leadership skills extended way past your efforts with the band as a whole. Your attention to us as individuals was unprecedented. When I began applying to potential colleges my junior year, I shyly came to you and asked if you would write a letter of recommendation to the schools for which I was applying. You agreed without hesitation. I confess, I peeked in the envelope you handed me the next day and read what you wrote. Your kind words of praise, although greatly exaggerated, made me beam with pride. I know you did the same for countless others as well.

So, as we forty-something, former band mates reunited at that football game this past weekend, we passed around delighted hugs and told each other we hadn't changed a bit. Then we sat down on those same bleachers and watched the current Nordonia Lancer Marching Band take the field. Except that it had rained that day, and the field was very muddy. So both schools just stood on the field instead and played their prepared songs. We all laughed as we thought of how you NEVER would have stood for this. We'd have been out there, knee-deep in mud, and would've been the recipients of your cold, hard stare if we dared to dog-it and NOT lift our thighs parallel to the ground, mud or not!

Oh, they were so undisciplined, Mr. Smicklas! They moved their heads from side to side, looking around, when they were supposed to be at attention. And we could definitely see them chatting with each other as they exited the field. When they marched by, Alan noticed one of the percussionists actually had a small bag of doritos sitting on her drum head. Apparently, she enjoyed a snack while performing.

Two of our band alums were also parents of a child in the current band. They said they knew the band was undisciplined and not very skilled, but that the kids truly loved their director and genuinely had a very good time. I'm sure they did. I hope they'll have nothing but wonderful memories for years to come, involving their precious years as members of the Nordonia Marching Band.

But, truth be told, Mr. Smicklas, I feel a little sorry for those kids. They don't know what it's like to be pushed hard, hard enough to truly see their own full potential. They don't know what it's like to be part of a group of people that have sweat, cried, and fainted from heat exhaustion together. They don't know what it's like to march onto a field having complete confidence that they are part of something really tremendous and have earned the respect and love of their classmates.

So, Mr. Smicklas, I'm writing today to thank you. I'm positive that the intense work ethic I posses today is largely due to the fact that you pushed me so hard to be better back then. Thank you for believing in my potential and my abilities. Thank you for never taking "I can't" for an excuse. But, most of all, thank you for the sweet, sweet memories I'll always treasure and the sublime friendships I'll forever cherish. I wouldn't "take them back" for anything on this earth!

Joan (Donnelly Girl #3)

Thanks for reading!!


Anonymous said...

AMEN!!! Linda Norton-Denton

Anonymous said...

Oh my heart, JOAN!!! You have a GIFT! And you are using it in a way that is truly a blessing. Press ON! Don't let fear or others keep you from using this gift to its intended full potential.
WOW! I'm a fan :)
Thanks for sharing (looking forward to the next installment...)
Renae Riha Grit

Unknown said...

Great great writing, Joan. Smicklas was indeed a piece of work, but I do share your admiration for his skill. I love hearing your thoughts. Keep writing!!!

Paul Mowrer said...

Joan, It's simply perfect! If you do read this, Mr. Smicklas, some of us owe you and your direction (not just on the field) for many of the best things that happened to them in their lives. I'm grateful to count myself in that crowd.

CentFla said...

Oh, I am smarmy now? I was given a meritorious promotion out of Marine Corps Boot Camp after High School and literally thought immediately that it was because of Marching Band and Tom Smiklas. I personally had a love hate relationship with him. He did not kick me out of band, though I deserved it on more than one occasion. But he also told me just before the Memorial Day parade that the school had a limited amount of Flugabones and that he wanted to give it to a younger band member. So I had to borrow an old trombone and take lessons from Paul and Chris to learn how to play it!

Anonymous said...

Well done Joan! I really enjoyed reading!
Russ Dusek

seaangel223 said...

Joan Thanks for sharing the memories! You brought back so many for me as well. Although I did not care for Mr. S. on a personal level I have a deep respect for what he was able to accomplish with 200+ teenagers. As a teacher, I highly doubt anyone could acccomplish what he did in todays culture. He was a great disciplinarian and knew how to raise the bar and challenge kids to reach their full potential. Thanks again for sharing! Ireally enjoy reasing your work! Maybe you should consider a novel next....

Anonymous said...

One thing Joan needs - a quote from Mr. Smicklas. Here it is:

"It was my priviledge to serve as your director.
I will always value every student's contribution towards making the Nordonia High School Lancer Band one of the very best total instrumental music entities in Ohio during our years together. I thank Joan for the kind words on this blog post. Obviously, one cannot please everybody in life - especially interacting with a large assembly of diverse individuals. I tried to do my best, and you all did, too. The result spoke for itself."

May God bless each and every one of you, always."

Mr. Smicklas

Ron Olesinski said...

Joan, I believe your writing really brought home why our time together was so special and why the years haven't seemed to diminish our friendsships in the least. I really don't understand how Mr. Smicklas was able to push us to the extent he did while making each one of us feel like a vital piece to the overall performance of the band, but he certainly accomplished that goal. We were damn good, weren't we? I miss that feeling of anticipation when we were about to take the field. May we all maintain that sense of pride forever!

Anonymous said...

Well done Joan!! I am new to your writing, but LOVE your style! You say what you want to say in a manner that everyone can get, even if they were not a part of the band. Keep up your great work!!
Sue Masters

Anonymous said...

Nice read Joan. As much as I did not agree with some of the methods our Director used, I will never forget the time in band. I learned to stand up for myself, learned to stand up for others and how to lead. From every experience in life we learn things. I beleive I am a better leader today because of what I experienced inmy years in the Lancer band, Symphony Band and Jazz Band. I learned things to do and some things not to do. I to need to thank Tom. Amy Piotrowski-Foody

Anonymous said...


I wanted to put an opinion up as a current member of the Nordonia Lancer Marching Band. As much as I agree with you with the lack of discipline and I can't believe that someone in our band would have food out on the field, there are some points I think you might want to consider.

The night of the Brunswick game, the weather was awful. That whole week had been rain rain rain, and as our current band director likes to say, "It's just liquid sunshine!" We usually trudge out on the field, trying not to lose a shoe or fall or trip over a flag, all the while executing proper roll-stepping (which, by the way, does NOT involve raising our thighs to be parallel to the ground - that's chair-stepping). However, this field was rather liquefied, and we had a competition the next day. Not just a competition on some other school's nice-looking, dry turf. Our home competition. I believe somewhere around ten bands were present (maybe more), four of which were class AA -- very good (no, superior) bands that, to this day, I'm still scratching my head at the fact that they came to our field in all of its hole-filled, muddy glory. It's like taking your life into your hands marching when the field is DRY!

Our band director told us that he didn't want us to march that night for two reasons: one, to save the field for the next day so it wasn't impossible to march on for other bands, and two, we were actually wearing our full uniforms (which is more than I can say for Brunswick; they were in jeans and tennis shoes). We wanted them to look nice for the competition, and we simply do not have the money to pay all $800 to have them cleaned every time it's muddy.

What about not being pushed enough? What can we do about people that are in it because they are forced to be and don't want to be pushed? I agree when Mr. Hoefler says "The band is only as good as its weakest member." How are the people that are truly dedicated, truly involved, and truly want to do well supposed to feel like they've done a good job when other people who couldn't care less screw it up for everyone? Another famous quote Hoef is fond of: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." Hoef and our wonderful field commanders have led us to the water so many times, but so many people don't take that proverbial drink. What can we do about that? If you'd like to help, we have two more Thursday night rehearsals from 6 to 9 (more like 9:20).

We work hard. And if you don't think we sweat, come to band camp and experience the wonderful smell of people that don't shower after a 10-hour day outside in the hot weather. If you think we don't cry, come experience the drama that comes from our band family. Miraculously enough, though, no one has fainted this year. Shouldn't that be a GOOD thing? But then, there's always the Memorial Day parade...marching in the wool uniforms when it's about 90 degrees...

Again, I agree with what you say about discipline: we need to work on that. It's also interesting and inspiring, in a way, to realize that people do talk about us and notice us more often than we realize.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Jennifer Donnelly Taft said...

Truth be told, nothing prepared me for success at West Point like Nordonia's marching band. Later, when I was in army parades and ceremonies senior officers would occasionally remark on my "USMA discipline" in formation, little did they know it was really Smicklas' demand of excellence. It has served me well the last 25 years or so.

Anonymous said...

I am a Nordonia Alumni and I just came across your article. It is well writen and full of passion, but it is also off about the current band. I invite you to please come to the Nordonia Festival of Bands on October 6th, 2012 and see more of what they are about instead of judging them based on one performance with crazy circumstances. As a matter of fact, there is an alumni band this year and it would be great to have you there to share your memories! Go to and there is an Alumni Band link at the top where you can register. I don't mean for this to sound spammy, but you are obviously a Nordonia Alumni, and it is you specifically we are searching for! The thing that bothers me most about your post is that somebody was eating chips on the field and you thinking that it is just normal operating procedures. I don't know how that got by anybody (directors, staff, parents), but that is NOT tolerated at all. I am sure you had students who did stupid things and tried pushing buttons (especially in the percussion)... Anyhow, I would love for you and your friends to come to the alumni band.

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