History of the Joliet Township High School Band Part Four—“Challenges and Successes”

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • March 1, 2019

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Last month, we shared how the Joliet program maintains their long tradition. This month, we discuss the challenges of changing times and the successes born of determination and hard work. In 1964, with the town population booming, Joliet Township split into three high schools: East, Central, and West.

The Joliet Township building became the Central campus, and is referred to as such today. In 1983, hard financial times closed the East campus. Joliet has always been a working class town, with the primary industry in the early days being the steel mills and limestone mining in the area. That atmosphere continues today, but now the primary employers of the community include a major hospital, a new Amazon warehouse, and the school district itself. In pop culture, the town is perhaps best known for the prison in the opening scenes of The Blues Brothers.

With the demographics of the area, there are challenges. Stinson said, “We provide the tuxes and dresses, and kids don’t have black socks. They sometimes don’t have someone who can advocate for them…or people are working are so hard you just don’t have the time to take care of those things.”

“Bands are expensive. Similar to a lot of low income schools, a lot of our money goes to reeds, valve oil—anything they need to play their instruments, that’s where a lot of the finances go to.” Instruments are a struggle, and nearly 75-80 percent of the students use a school-owned instrument. “We provide a lot of trumpets, flutes, clarinets, etc. It’s heartbreaking at graduation when the kid has to turn the instrument back in.”

Stinson is quick to credit his predecessors with terrific foresight. “We’re very blessed that the district is in a pretty good place right now. I have a lot of respect for the people of the past because when they did have some money they got high quality instruments. We have some from McAllister and Houseknecht’s times that were cared for. Our alumni base is so deep that they are starting to donate instruments that have been kept in great condition. We have the history—the older instruments were built well.

We have King silver sousaphones from the 1970’s. In places with low income, it’s hard because they get what they can, and it might not be usable. That’s the hard thing today… you get what you can afford and that may not last.”

While there are challenges, there are tremendous successes.

“A lot equate low income with low standards and that’s not the case here,” said Stinson. “These kids get the best experience possible so they can come out of the school and compete. Many of our students and families are considered low-income, but that hasn’t changed the quality of what the students are getting.”

The school has worked hard to fund the district, with remarkable results. It is a One-to-One school, with each student receiving a laptop. They have been an AP District of the Year, with more kids showing growth and potential.

“You see the work the kids do every day, and you don’t want to see the kids reduced to a comment. It makes you feel for those things.”

“Just because a student population is this or that, doesn’t mean there’s no future here. For me, this is my corner of the world, and this is what I do. This is the school that gave me everything, and I wanted to give back.”

Because of the lineage and history, it has truly been a labor of love for each of the conductors. Fiske says, “I’ve been in a lot of places, but for me I’m qualified to say there is no place like this—the history, the tradition, more than anything else that’s what keeps it going. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do what Ted did, but I didn’t want anything to happen to the tradition. That’s why I wanted the job. And when I got it, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

“This was something I thought about since I was 14,” said Stinson. “Not many people get to be in their dream job. I had such high expectations and the school and administration have exceeded those expectations. To come back and to help other kids out and let them know that we’re part of something special and historical, it’s wonderful to have that opportunity. It’s a different perspective at this age than when you’re in high school.”

Their mutual deep respect for Lega has been a driving force as well. “There’s one word to describe Ted Lega,” said Fiske, “and it’s ‘humility.’ He didn’t want his picture up there,” he said, motioning to the band room wall. “For me, it’s an honor. It’s always been an honor to be here. A lot of that has to do with what Ted meant to me. When I was at Elwood Grade School…I’ve known him since then. I have a short list of people that have meant the most to me in my life, and he’s right up there.”

Next month: Tradition and Community

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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