The Gift of Music

A few months ago I wrote about the Fulton High School band’s 1972 trip to Vienna, Austria. It was a memorable time for those students and for Fultonians. It was also a career highlight for the man who made that trip possible: Richard Swierczek.

As the band’s leader, Dick spearheaded the historic trip. I enjoyed writing the article recalling it, and apparently Dick enjoyed reading it. Shortly after the column ran, I received an email from him thanking me.

Dick and I corresponded back and forth, and I learned more about the man who provided Fulton youth many music opportunities. At 92 years old, now living in Chatham, Massachusetts, Dick hasn’t forgotten his time in Fulton. Here’s more of his story:

“I’m very proud of the fact that I grew up in one of the two or three Polish neighborhoods in Fulton.  My grandparents Stanley and Hanna Witowski’s home was on West First Street, across from the current Polish Home. They had fourteen children, losing four to influenza.

“My mother, Mary, and father, John, both worked at the Woolen Mills, and when Dad got close to retirement he bought a house and grocery store in Granby Center. Mom was to run the store, but she got very sick and was unable to do so. The store ended up burning to the ground and I’m not sure Dad had insurance on it. This greatly affected our lives and we ended up having to move back into my grandparents’ home.”

It was while living with his grandparents that Dick was introduced to music.  “Back in those days,” he recalled, “every home was expected to have a piano, whether or not anyone could play it. When my mother bought one, none of us could play, but my grandfather believed nothing should go to waste and he taught himself by picking out Polish melodies. We would stand around the piano and clap, dance, laugh and sing.

“My grandmother had a beautiful silvery voice and she’d sing Polish songs. As long as she knew no one was listening, she’d sing. I used to sneak into the kitchen to listen and that was the beginning of my musical life.”

Dick may have inherited his musical aptitude from his grandparents, but his family also provided music-related opportunities. “On Saturdays, Edwards Store in Syracuse sponsored the WFBL Children’s Hour,” Dick said. “My mother made sure I listened every week. Also, my Uncle Ed was hooked on classical music and he introduced me to the New York Philharmonic’s live broadcasts.”

When Dick got to high school he became friends with another Fultonian who loved music: Jack Walsh.  When they graduated from high school in 1943, Dick expected to be drafted the following year, “but Jack suggested we go to Potsdam’s music school. It wasn’t expected that anyone from my Polish community could go to college; tuition was $100. But I approached my parents with a plan. If they could cover the tuition, I’d work my way through.”

At Potsdam, Dick immersed himself in music education. Though he was drafted after his first year, he returned to the college two years later, graduating with a music degree.  After teaching five years at various New York State schools, in 1954 Dick was hired in Fulton as an elementary-level band teacher.

“I was hired by Mr. MacDonald, superintendent of Fulton schools. There was no schoolwide music program to speak of and his intention was for me to build one up from the younger grades. To introduce myself to the children, I carried one of each band instrument into fourth through eighth grade classrooms. I demonstrated each instrument and gave every student a chance to try them.”

Dick developed a unique method to teach children music. Using an instrument called a flutophone, sort of a primitive clarinet, he taught them the basics of playing a song.

“By my second year of teaching, we were ready for our first elementary band concert,” Dick recalled. “The gymnasium was filled with parents and all fourth grade classes in Fulton.  After students played one or two short pieces they’d memorized, I announced an “all request” portion of the program. As long as I knew the song, I could lead it. I held my hand up to show the children what fingers to use and we were able to play a few songs. The music program took off from there.”

By the time Dick retired in 1985, Fulton was recognized throughout the state for its premier music education.  He hired other music teachers, including Carol Fox, which Dick told me was “the best decision I ever made.” Carol and others worked to support Dick’s goals and soon Fulton became part of the state’s School Music Association. Through that organization, talented Fulton youngsters participated in music festivals held at the county, sectional, all state, and Eastern United States divisions.  This all led to the Austria trip.

Fulton students weren’t only learning music, but also some valuable life lessons. “I worked out a system with Don Distin, Director of Athletics, who had developed a marvelous sports program. In many schools, music and sports were at odds with each other for students’ time, but not at Fulton. Our students got to participate in both programs. If there was a time conflict, Don and I got together and solved the problem.”

Dick eventually branched out beyond youth programs, developing the Fulton’s Men’s and Women’s Chorus and spreading music throughout the city. But, to me, his greatest contribution to Fulton was the gift of music he gave to our youth. A story he told me is one shining example:

“After I’d left Fulton, a boy I’d taught wrote me a letter as an adult. While driving in his car, a piece of music came on that he said was so beautiful. ‘I pulled over the side of the road to appreciate it,’ he said.”

I wonder how many Fultonians have Dick Swierczek to thank for their lifelong love of music?

Dick Swierczek, former Fulton School’s music educator, recently talked with me about his contributions to our city.

Dick Swierczek, former Fulton School’s music educator, recently talked with me about his contributions to our city.