Dick Swierczek Remembers Fulton Music Makers

A few months ago I ran a column about Richard Swierczek, former music educator and advocate for the Fulton schools and community. Dick, who’s 93 and lives in Chatham, Massachusetts, was such a joy to interview for the column and since then we’ve become email friends. He’s told me more about why making music in our city was special for him, including stories about some of the people he met or worked with during his tenure with Fulton schools. Today’s column highlights a few of them.

Dick enjoys keeping track of former and current Fultonians’ musical accomplishments. “On August 15,” Dick said, “14-year-old Henry Acker, of the Fulton Acker family, appeared at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown.  The entire Acker family is still involved in the music of their heritage and Henry has twice won the Downbeat Student Award for jazz guitar soloist.  He gave a performance last year with his uncle and father in concert near Hyannis. I was in the audience and had the opportunity to have nice conversations with them during intermission and post concert.”

Another Fultonian Dick fondly remembered is Ronald Caravan, the son of Vince Caravan, longtime Valley News editor and publisher. The younger Caravan also contributed to the newspaper for many years and was involved in our city’s community events. “Ron was a very competent member of the Bodley Band,” Dick noted. “He went on to get his degree from Eastman, the first who had a double major: clarinet and saxophone. Later, Ron became professor of woodwinds at Syracuse University, where he continued studying the physics and acoustics of those instruments. He ended up developing mouthpieces for them, and his creations still have high regard. Ron has also composed music and released a CD of his work.” 

Next on Dick’s list of memorable Fulton musicians is Eugene Nichols, who was in Fulton schools during Dick’s tenure. “He has a highly original mind and ended up graduating with a music degree from Potsdam,” Dick explained. “He went on to become a member of Cole Bros. Circus Band and also composed music at a very young age, writing a piece constructed entirely of easily recognized fragments and phrases of well-known tunes.  Last I knew, Gene was spreading his unique style as member of the community college at Mathias, Maine, and the town is very happy to have him there.” 

There were more students Dick fondly remembered: “Kevin Owen trained as a French horn player, and has been principle horn in such organizations as the Boston Pops, Rhode Island Symphony, Boston Philharmonic and other New England orchestras.  Jazz singer Mark Murphy, whose obituary was listed among other figures of universal recognition, was of the musical Murphy family. His brother, Dwight, graduated from Potsdam two years after I did, taught first in Lake Placid, where I was invited as guest conductor of the Area All State Chorus on two occasions.  Alan Howe, another member of the Murphy Family, is a great jazz pianist and has been guest at Jazz concerts organized as part of summer series organized by Carol Fox.”

Dick has high regard for Carol Fox, who he hired to help him teach music in Fulton. Carol lives in Oswego, but many Fultonians consider her “one of us,” largely due to her enduring commitment to the Fulton Community Band. Dick acknowledges the many contributions Carol and the Community Band have made, noting that it has “earned attention from excellent performers as members from a wide area around Fulton.  Carol organized the band, organized its concert schedule, added other performers for this schedule, and does it without compensation!”

One of the members of Fulton’s Community Band is Jo Ann Butler, whose many talents (she’s also a writer) have enriched our city. When I mentioned to Jo Ann that I was writing a column about Fultonians who had studied music under Dick Swierczek, she had memories of her bandleader to share.

“Dick Swierczek was a high-energy director with high standards,” Jo Ann recalled, “but he also had great rapport with our band, and we created amazing performances together. Personally, I was struck then, and now, by the trust Mr. Swierczek showed in me. In my sophomore year, he handed me a book of bass clarinet solos and said, ‘Pick the one you like for solo competition.’ For the next few months I practiced and polished my favorite at home.

“Three weeks before competition, Mr. Swierczek asked if he had given me a solo. I opened the book to the piece I'd prepped, and he gasped, ‘You are doing the six?!’ Grade six pieces are the most difficult and usually tackled by older, more experienced players. Fearful of doing wrong, I was intimidated by his reaction. Mr. Swierczek gave me several private lessons before competition, but I crashed and burned every time.

“I expected him to leave me at home on competition day, but he must have believed the experience would be good for me, even if I flopped. However, I felt surprisingly calm while playing for the judges, and was happy (and relieved) with my performance. When Mr. Swierczek got the results, his face was red to his hairline (which was pretty far back even in 1971) when he told me how I'd done: ‘You got an A and you are recommended for All-State!’

“Who was more surprised? Probably Mr. Swierczek, and I still thank him for letting that shy little bass clarinetist face the judges. That success transformed my life.”

Stories of appreciation like Jo Ann’s can be told by many Fultonians who studied under Swierczek, but he prefers to see things the other way around. “I’m proud to have been a product of Fulton,” Dick said, “and to have been involved with its music scene.”

Richard Swierczek, shown here with members of the 1972 G. Ray Bodley High School Band, has been following the success of his students for many years.

Richard Swierczek, shown here with members of the 1972 G. Ray Bodley High School Band, has been following the success of his students for many years.