In the mid-1980s, the Bensalem High School Band was a leaderless, sparsely populated group who sometimes performed to audiences made up of little more than school administrators.
That changed in 1986 when Douglas Fitzgerald took the reins as musical director. Over the next 20 years, the high school band performed at the Super Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, Walt Disney World, the Bahamas and bested many other bands in competitions.
And as each year passed, musical styles grew to a complexity rarely performed by high school bands, much less college, he said.
Fitzgerald — the doctorate-holding music director, former conservatory teacher for The University of the Arts and former sideman for The Temptations — retired this week. The 61-year-old Lansdale resident had worked for 38 years, 20 in Bensalem.
And to think, the North Carolina native seriously considered becoming a Presbyterian minister. That was before he picked up his brother’s hand-me-down saxophone after Fitzgerald’s parents said no to the drums.
Saxophone in hand, he joined his high school band. Fitzgerald turned his back to the world obsession with the Beatles for jazz. Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw — those were Fitzgerald’s music makers.
He studied music at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., paying his way through by playing sax for groups like The Temptations and The Platters.
For those shows, Fitzgerald would arrive back stage, learn the stops and starts of a number — and wait for the crowds to go crazy.
“There was no way I could get out of music at that point,” he said. “Nor would I have wanted to.”
Fitzgerald was president of East Carolina’s student government. During one of the many Vietnam-era sit-ins on the campus, he sat next to the school’s dean. They talked. Next thing he knew, Fitzgerald had a free ride to East Carolina to get his master’s and Ph.D.
His first teaching gig was in a school district in Clinton, N.Y. Then he moved on to The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. When the conservatory closed, he found himself interviewing at Bensalem.
There’s two ways to judge whether a high school is any good, Fitzgerald said: You look in the bathrooms and you find out how the administration treats the arts.
Fitzgerald liked what he found about the latter. (He didn’t have much to say about the former). He learned that Bensalem was willing to fund the music program and impose no limits on his ambitions.
He said parents were crucial to the bands’ successes. They were selfless, he said, sometimes driving the bands’ gear as far as New Orleans for a performance.
According to him, “You can always find a student something to play. You cater the music to their skills and progressively move forward. “It’s a very good life.”
Ben Finley can be reached at 215-949-4048 or bfinley@phillyBurbs.com.
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