History of the Joliet Township High School Band Part One — “Family”

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • December 4, 2018

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It all started with a pig. It was somewhere around 1895, and a 14-year old farm teen in Jackson Township, Illinois wanted a new cornet.

His parents couldn’t afford to purchase the instrument, but instead gave him a pig to raise and sell at the Will County Fair in order to raise the necessary funds. Over the next several years, the young man would flirt with a musical career, becoming a member of a brass band, forming a ladies silver cornet band, and even studying conducting at what would eventually become the VanderCook College of Music in nearby Chicago. But ultimately, he would choose a more stable vocation…becoming an industrial arts teacher.

One evening in 1912, his superintendent at Joliet Township High School attended a football game in nearby Rockford, where he heard the school band performing in the stands. He was so impressed by this that he decided Joliet Township should have the same. He searched his personnel files and found that his shop teacher, Archie Raymond McAllister, had experience playing the cornet. He tapped McAllister for a new role as the first director of what would become one of the earliest and most successful school band programs in the United States – one whose proud tradition continues yet today.

To put in historical context: when the Joliet Township band began, the airplane had only been around for a decade, World War I was not yet on the horizon, the Model T Ford was just gaining in popularity, and the big news of the past year had been the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.

A.R. McAllister would remain at the helm of that program until his death in 1944 at the age of 63. During that time, he would usher into existence a band program that would win national championships, be praised as “the best high school band in the land” by none other than John Philip Sousa and set the standard for the school band movement that was to come in the middle of the twentieth century. Bruce Houseknecht was appointed director in 1945, and he remained on the podium until accepting a professorship at his alma mater, the Eastman School of Music, in 1969. He wore many hats during his tenure; he also was head of the Joliet Junior College music department, director of the orchestra (being a violinist by training), concertmaster of the Junior College orchestra, choir director at Central Presbyterian Church, contributing editor for the Instrumentalist magazine, in demand as an adjudicator and guest conductor across the country, and a talented arranger. Under his direction, the band continued their fine tradition of earning multiple honors—including being the first high school band to perform at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago (and receiving return invitations four times while Houseknecht was director).

The band has had only three directors since Houseknecht, and recently I had the rare opportunity to sit down with all of them to talk about this remarkable history and the connected lineage dating back to the early days of the band which has fostered a tradition that has continued for over a century.

Ted Lega succeeded Houseknecht in 1969 and remained there until his retirement in 2002, making his the longest tenure so far. As a college student Ted taught the band at Joliet Catholic Academy and the Elwood Band, but Lega’s connection with the band far predates his first day as director. His father was a member of McAllister’s band, and made a career as a big band leader. Lega was a member of Houseknecht’s band—and in fact, became one of the student conductors of the band. It’s been said that Ted Lega arrived at Joliet Township High School as a freshman, and basically didn’t leave until he retired.

One of Lega’s students at Elwood was Mike Fiske, who taught nearby in Illinois and Indiana for 25 years before being tapped to succeed Lega in 2002, thus continuing the “lineage” of teacher to student in the Joliet bands. Even while teaching in nearby Morris, Fiske “never missed a concert here”—the pull of tradition and excellence kept him close to the band. “There’s still this thing in Joliet where if they’re a Joliet family, they want to be in the Joliet band. There’s something really special about that. I never dreamt that someday my picture would be on that wall.”

Hanging on the band room rear wall are the photos of the past four directors. The current director Don Stinson, a student of Lega’s era who took over on Fiske’s retirement in 2016, says that when alumni visit, “they look up at the photos because that is a representation of the program.” That was evident on this October Saturday, when there happened to be a number of alumni coming through the building on tours who were happily surprised to find not just the photos on the wall, but their beloved teachers in person which led to a number of unexpected and joyful “mini-reunions” that morning.

Rehearsing here is like being in a museum. The giant castle of a building, constructed of trademark Joliet limestone, has portions well over a century old. The band room is located in what was at one time the school auditorium, with the stage converted as the main rehearsal space. Photos of the band, dating back to the early days, line the walls. The ornate conductor’s podium, constructed by shop teacher turned band director McAllister, is still used daily.

Fortunately, the uniforms have evolved from the first ones— which were butcher jackets donated by a local business. Ironic, given that a pig figures into McAllister’s musical beginnings.

Next Month: The Joliet Sound

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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