Unplanned Intermission: Secrets of a West Texas Band Director

Mike Lawson • • October 1, 2018

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It was the first school period after lunch when the door to the band hall opened and the student gathering absentee slips poked his head in to announce: “The president has been shot in Dallas.”

After an initial stunned silence, some of us, including the band director, took a skeptical attitude with a tacit, “Get out of here; we’re busy.” The sad verification came minutes later through live radio coverage blasted over the school intercom.

As the next hours and days receded over time into a blur of black-and-white television screens, one detail that stuck was the cool demeanor of the band director as he calmly dismissed the class. We never mistook it for apathy. Still, the mental image of his business-as-usual approach was hard to shake. It was as if he had been through it all before.

The band hall was an unassuming red brick building across from the high school in Coleman, Texas – population around 5,000 for the past half-century –and the bandmaster was Raymond Rike.

He had turned our dreams to reality by teaching us our instrument of choice, then morphed into a sort-of-compassionate drill instructor who repeatedly ran us, sweating, through marching routines inside the thick, oven-like rock walls of Hufford Field, the football stadium.

Physically, he bore little resemblance to the stereotypical maestro. Of average height with a small mustache and slightly thinning brown hair, he might have passed for a distant cousin of Walter Cronkite and could have fit easily into a corporate setting. His style was one of patience and support. When a musical passage proved troublesome, he would pause the rehearsal to work with the appropriate instrumental section while the entire band observed and learned.

Early Background

Raymond A. Rike (1918-2004) earned his undergraduate degree from Baylor University, later returning to the classroom to attend Columbia and receive a Masters in Orchestral Conducting from the Juilliard School in 1948. His high school students were not aware of the Juilliard background. It’s just as well because the inherent prestige would have been lost on us then. It’s doubtful that even the school administrators “got it.” Rike was also a composer. There were several short pieces of which one in particular, the “March for Moppets” was a favorite that we played. He also wrote a full Symphony for Band, introduced in the early 1960s by the Baylor University Concert Band.

There were times when his creativity would surprise students as well as audiences. He was just as likely to incorporate a popular novelty tune into a marching routine one week as to adapt a classical passage the next. You haven’t lived as a band student until you’ve learned to march in pinwheel formation to the stirring finale from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth or the drama of Les Preludes by Liszt. But once you nail the unnatural ability to stay in step while playing quarter-note triplets, you never forget it.

On the Trail of a Mystery

A gnawing curiosity about Rike’s own compositions, fueled by a time-travel dream by another of his former students, led to several attempts to contact the Baylor music department – and as many snubs. It was clear that “reaching out” had not worked; it was time to double down with an old reporter’s zeal. The resulting online research led to the Austin Public Library and wire service coverage from the 1940s.

In 1941, Rike, identified by the Associated Press as a clarinetist from Dallas, was “ready for Stokowski” as one of the outstanding U.S. musicians chosen to audition for the All-American Youth Orchestra under the world-renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski.

In addition to a great honor on its own, this opportunity supported the opinion of Raymond’s two musician brothers. One, an oboist who became a successful advertising executive in New York, and the other, more jazz-oriented brother who worked his way through U-T Austin by playing trumpet gigs, had decreed Raymond most likely to have a symphony orchestra in his future.

Whether the Stokowski experience played a role in his later decision to attend Columbia and Juilliard would be pure speculation. And while such an audition was doubtless nerve-wracking, it offered no clear insight into Rike’s unshakable calm on the podium in November 1963.

A Promising Clue

According to military bulletins, U. S. forces suffered many thousands of casualties in the fight to retake the Philippines from the Japanese during the summer of 1945. Hospitals were filled with soldiers suffering from disease as well as battle injuries. One can only imagine the efforts that went into trying to comfort the wounded.

According to an Associated Press dispatch from July of that year, the 25th Division band led by Raymond Rike of Dallas and a fellow warrant officer was performing at a hospital in Luzon when the music was interrupted by enemy sniper fire. As medical personnel moved patients to safety, the musicians instinctively exchanged their instruments for rifles, moved toward the danger and quickly took out the enemy snipers before returning to their places to continue the concert. Done and done. Anyone feel like using the term “band geek” now?

Sudden Exit

Most of us former students to whom Rike had given so much never saw him after his surprising move from Texas to Puerto Rico in 1964. He did send some of his paintings, including at least one tropical beach scene, to friends back home. And he was said to have married a woman from the islands. The possibilities set adolescent fantasies soaring. Had our treasured band director, feeling stifled in a small town, escape to the islands to become a beach bum, paint, and marry a native girl?

It remains unknown whether there was any validity to the “escape” theory because he never talked about himself, either at school or at home. But the facts are more logical, if a tad less romantic.

According to his son, Raymond Rike had two employment opportunities outside Texas at that time, and he chose a military school in Puerto Rico over an offer in Saudi Arabia. The Roosevelt Naval Air Station was near Ceiba. Eventually, he returned to Texas, where he continued to create by painting, and lived out his days in a senior community near – but not too near – family.

The Rike Legacy

While never divulging details about himself, it is clear that Rike was always assessing his students’ strengths and interests and working to make each feel special with guidance to whatever each considered personal success. A retired military wife in Virginia recalls his custom, accelerated training that allowed her to join the flute section.

A retired professional pilot and successful author credits Rike with preparing him for a music scholarship to Southern Methodist University.

Sensing my interest in conductor scores and the hunger to know classical pieces I had read about but had not heard, he encouraged and developed my ability as a student conductor, trusting me to rehearse the band for the summer rodeo parades marking the biggest annual local event. The responsibility came at a time when my self-worth needed a boost, and I have never believed the timing was a coincidence.

While his greatest gift to hundreds of students is a lifetime of appreciation and enjoyment of music, he continues to give back to the music world. For every concert ticket purchased by a former student, for every donation to a professional ensemble, for every volunteer hour, the guiding hand of “our” Mr. Rike is in evidence.

All of us from his decade in that little West Texas town can now bask in the knowledge that we learned from a Juilliard-trained conductor. Depending on when he touched each life, Raymond Rike was a mentor, a composer, a showman, a multiple award-winning band director, and a generous teacher who opened doors.

To that list we now add: war hero.

Since retiring from a 35-year career in broadcast journalism and media relations, Jim Lawrence has occasionally played trombone in community bands in Dallas, Texas. He is an avid supporter of musical organizations in and beyond the Southwest.

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