Showman transformed, brought fame to UMass marching band
For decades, he led them in a show of school spirit — the football players, the cheerleaders, the students, and anyone else who cared about the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
George N. Parks was passionate, a “ball of energy,’’ as one colleague put it, who transformed the UMass Minuteman Marching Band from a group of musicians into a nationally recognized entertainment force — “The Power and Class of New England,’’ as it has come to be known.
“It was the thrill, really, that he brings to practicing and performing, and it was just electric,’’ said Jeff Cox, head of the university’s music and dance department. “Students were drawn to it, and inspired by it.’’
Parks, a drum corps specialist who also left his mark on band camps and half-time show productions across the country, died Thursday night of an apparent heart attack, just after performing at a high school football game in Ohio. He was 57, and leaves his wife, Jeanne, and two children, Michael and Kathryn of Amherst.
On the road to away games, Parks often made stops at local high schools, where UMass band members would sleep on gymnasium floors in exchange for performing. Parks used these stops as a way to recruit band members.
The band had been traveling through Ohio on its way to Ann Arbor, Mich., to share the half-time show of today’s much anticipated football game between UMass and the University of Michigan. Performing at Michigan, the largest venue UMass has ever played in, was something Parks had always dreamed of, said a parent of a former band member.
The band will still perform today with Parks’s assistants, Fox said, in a fitting tribute to a man who taught students not only music but leadership.
“George would have wanted them to go forward,’’ Robert Holub, UMass Amherst chancellor, said in a phone interview from Michigan. “I’m sure they will give a spirited performance with heavy hearts.’’
Matthew Parent, an alto saxophone player from Palmer who graduated in the spring, said Parks was the type to know every student’s name within days of meeting them, and was able to single out individuals on a field among hundreds of members.
“I found out later he had every single person’s picture in his phone, and between rehearsals, he would be scrolling through, memorizing names and faces,’’ Parent said.
Parent first met Parks as a high school student, when he was one of thousands invited to play with the UMass band at a fall game each year.
“That’s really why I went to UMass,’’ Parent said. “It was because of Mr. Parks. Most of the time, he’s not teaching you about band. He’s teaching you how to be a leader and how to respect yourself and respect other people.’’
Parks was also famous for introducing the “fifth quarter’’ to football games: After games, he would hold spectators captive with another show that lasted up to a half-hour.
During one game at West Point, when UMass students played “Proud to be an American,’’ Army fans stood and spontaneously sang the words, those in attendance recalled.
“That was George. He was a great showman. He could just grab the crowd,’’ said UMass President Jack Wilson. “We’d win a football game. We’d lose a football game. But we always won the battle of the bands.’’
Parks was charged 33 years ago, at age 24, with remaking the marching band into the spirited style of marching drum corps that it is today. Consisting of only about 165 members three decades ago, the band now has about 400 students, and it has won national recognition.
Parks graduated from West Chester University in Pennsylvania and Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in music. A native of Buffalo, he first made a name for himself as drum major of the award-winning musical group the Reading Buccaneers Senior Drum and Bugle Corps, leading the band to two Drum Corps Associates World Championships. He was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 2006.
Parks led a summer band leadership training seminar and Drum Major Academy that drew more than 3,000 participants from across the country each year, and he authored “The Dynamic Drum Major,’’ a text on the art of drum majoring that was published in 1984.
As a member of the music faculty, Parks has taught tuba and conducting, and in 1989 he was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award.
One of his proudest accomplishments, colleagues said, was his recent work to help raise more than $1 million for a $5.7 million band building, the first on campus.
The building, slated to open next spring, has been named in his honor.