A Shining Musical Moment

Life in a small city like Fulton can often seem uneventful. We go about our routine of jobs or school, grocery shopping and getting to those chores around the house. It’s rare when something exciting happens that grabs the attention of our whole city. But when such an event does take place, Fulton responds. For example, the time our high school band earned an opportunity to travel to Europe.

It was 1971, and Richard Swierczek, the band director for G. Ray Bodley High School, had received an invitation for his group to participate in the International School Band Festival. The festival promotes excellence in music education and annually extends an invitation to fewer than two percent of U.S. school bands. Included in Swierczek’s invitation were details about the next festival, slated to take place in July 1972. The location: Vienna, Austria.

Austria. Exotic land of “The Sound of Music,” its Alps mountains and hills alive and surrounded by countries Fulton students had only ever seen in history books. Four thousand miles from home. It was an unbelievable opportunity for Fulton youth, many who’d never before traveled beyond New York state borders.

In 2013, when The Fulton Library’s Memoir Project was in its first year, we were looking for people willing to write about memorable Fulton events. I was a high school junior in 1972 and not a band member, but I had a vague memory of the Vienna excursion and thought it would make a good Project memoir. One of the students on the trip was local author Jo Ann Butler and we asked her if she’d be willing to share her Vienna memories. She immediately agreed.

In her memoir, Jo Ann covered all aspects of what it took to make the Vienna trip possible for the Bodley band’s seventy musicians, eight musical staff, and chaperones. Money, of course, was a major hurdle to overcome.

“With airfare, bus touring for three weeks, hotels, and meals,” Jo Ann remembered, “it will cost about $650 in 1972 dollars to send each of us to Europe. $50,000 is a lot of money in Fulton.”

It sure was. I used Google to find out what $50,000 equates to in 2018. Over $300,000. Almost a third of a million dollars. Raised in one year. In the small city of Fulton. But the people of Fulton know how to rally behind an exciting opportunity for its youth. Here’s how Jo Ann explained action taken by community leaders:

“Dick Swierczek sat down with the students and their parents. If we wanted to go to Europe, we must commit to a year of fundraising and dedicated practice. The vote was a resounding, ‘Yes!’ On June 10, band parents pledged $14,710 toward our $50K goal, and a couple weeks later the band played the first of many fundraiser concerts at the First Methodists’ Strawberry Festival.”

Along with parents’ efforts, a group first dubbed the “On to Vienna Committee,” and later renamed the “Bodley Band Boosters,” launched a full out fundraising plan. Committee members included Elon Rowlee, honorary chairman; Tom Bogaczyk, chairman; Shirlee Collins, co-chairman of the Fund Drive; Kenneth Woeller, treasurer; Laurna Hoffman, publicity chairman; Carrie Butler, secretary. Other members included William Camp, Joseph Campolieta, Merrill Hoffman, Roger Long, and Ernie and Mary Hamer.

Jo Ann spelled out the fundraising efforts: “Band members, along with friends and family, collected newspapers, aluminum and glass for recycling. Chocolate was popular in a city which boasted the first Nestlé plant, and band members sold 3,000 boxes of candy for a $1,100 profit. We sold tickets for raffles, including a VW Beetle donated by Fulton Volkswagen, a trash masher given by Angelo Mirabito and even a purebred poodle.”

Jo Ann admitted in her memoir that she would never be able to list everyone who contributed to the Vienna fund, but the months of fundraising efforts were all worth it. On June 21, 1972, with less than a month before the band was due to board a plane to Vienna, The Fulton Patriot headline read: “They Make it; $50,000!”

Jo Ann recalled the July 4 departure day: “At daybreak, a sizeable crowd gathered at the school to see us off. We were bused down to JFK airport, only to wait until after 10 p.m. to take to the air.” The group landed in Frankfurt, Germany, and got their first look at a whole new world when they spent their first night away from home in the medieval town of Rothenburg.

A week later, Jo Ann and her bandmates were performing, along with 200 bands from all over the world, at Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Palace. “We passed between giant stone sphinxes and granite columns topped with golden eagles, and found our place in the vast courtyard,” Jo Ann remembered. “The room could seat 1,800 people, but only the stage was brightly lit. The acoustics were amazing; the least accent or dynamic change was heard, but not echoed. Will our performance match this magnificent setting?

“We opened with Silver Quill, a brisk and brassy march, played with such brilliance that our performance was chosen to promote the 1973 festival. Incantation and Dance and Symphonic Movement were our group’s favorite pieces. Each is a fast-paced musical jigsaw puzzle which tests every player’s skill, and we attacked those pieces with gusto.”

The G. Ray Bodley band soon learned that they had earned a superior rating from the judges, putting them among the top performances. Dr. William Revelli, the festival director, congratulated Fulton on its “very stirring and virile performance … This organization is a great credit to its city, school and state. Congratulations to all.”

 

I hope you enjoyed revisiting Fulton High School’s glorious trip abroad. If you’d like to read Jo Ann’s full memoir about the trip to Vienna, contact the Fulton Public Library and ask if you can check out a copy of The Memoir Project’s first book, published in 2013, and titled Fulton: The Stories From Our Past That Inspire Our Future.

  The 1972 G. Ray Bodley High School Band prepares to embark on its memorable trip to Vienna, Austria.

The 1972 G. Ray Bodley High School Band prepares to embark on its memorable trip to Vienna, Austria.