Farewell to “The Chief” – BGSU community celebrates life of long-time band director Mark Kelly

Jay Jackson shows Mark Kelly's uniform cap at A Celebratiion of Mark S. Kelly Saturday.


BG Independent News

If a stranger happened into the memorial for Mark Kelly Saturday morning in Kobacker Hall not knowing anything about the person’s whose life was being celebrated, that person would have been enlightened about the late Bowling Green State University band director, and why he was called the Chief.

It would be clear why more than 100 musicians were assembled on stage to play some of Kelly’s favorite music, and why several hundred more gathered in the hall, where The Chief had directed so many concerts, to hear the music and words honoring him.

That stranger would come away with a clear picture of a man who valued tradition, integrity and excellence. Kelly thought of himself as “just a band director from Iowa” yet left a legacy that has touched untold thousands, both directly and through the ripple effect of the students of his students.

A Celebration of Mark S. Kelly was held Saturday morning on campus. Kelly, band director at BGSU from 1966-1994, died at age 91 on Nov. 20.

Those gathered for the celebration of life included a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and just as important people whose lives have taken them away from music yet still remember lessons learned from The Chief.

Mark Zimmerman, a 1979 BGSU graduate, was drum major for the Falcon Marching Band under Kelly.

He said that Kelly’s voice resonates with them as they stand at the kitchen sink, or walk down Wall Street or through a slum in Kenya. It doesn’t matter if they had careers in music or not.

“I’ve heard that voice in my mind for 43 years and it’s never going to leave me,” he said.

That voice resounded in the words of the speakers. It was heard in the pet sayings – “plan your work then work your plan,” recalled John Deal, his assistant from1975-1979. And in the stories told. Jay Jackson, as a newly hired assistant director in 1986, recalled questioning whether he needed to wear a uniform. Maybe a sport coat, he suggested, during an increasingly chilly discussion. That’s what the grad assistants wear, Kelly told him. So when Jackson made his debut on the sidelines, he was sporting the “Funky Winkerbean” look.

Kelly had his say about what transpired during the memorial.

His daughter Karen Kelly, who organized the celebration with her sisters Martha Jewell and Barb Hayden, said she would have conversations in later years with her father about what kind of service he wanted.

He told her: “I would be nice if we could have some band members play a little something. So we started thinking and soon grew beyond the size of the church.”

Planning for the memorial started in December. She looked back at all his programs to see what pieces he played the most, and what kind of pieces he liked.

That meant marches including Everett Maxwell’s “Sounding Brass” and “The Pathfinder of Panama” by John Philip Sousa and Broadway medleys, “My Fair Lady,” on Saturday.

Karen Kelly said the response to the call for musicians was “tremendous.”

The musicians included 1967 graduates, the first graduating class after her father’s arrival, to current students.

Linda Jones, who played the piano for Felix Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No. 2 for two clarinets and piano, was a high school student when Kelly taught in his hometown of Centerville, Iowa.

The piece was a Kelly favorite, and a nod to his love of clarinet.

Audience stands and claps along to “Forward Falcon.”

Karen Kelly is a clarinetist like her father and continues to play bass clarinet in several community bands including the Bowling Green Area Community Band. She played in the Alumni Symphonic Band Saturday as well.

The band gelled, she said. “It’s like riding a bike. We all grew up in college under same baton, the same structure.”

“Kudos! You all sound like a Mark Kelly band,” Robert Glidden, a former dean of the College of Musical Arts, told them. Glidden had first encountered Kelly in 1953. Glidden played in an Iowa All State high school band that Kelly conducted.

Whether he was a high school student or dean, Glidden knew: “The Chief was in charge.”

Conducting the alumni band was Capt. Ryan Nowlin, assistant director of the U.S. Marine Corps Band, “the President’s Own, in Washington D.C.

Nowlin did undergraduate and graduate work at the university after Kelly retired, so he never played under his baton. But Kelly was still a presence on campus.

Nowlin said he took an interest in him. Nowlin won a scholarship named for Kelly. Over the years Nowlin sought out Kelly’s advice. He asked him whether he should apply for then arranger’s job with the Marine Band.

Karen Kelly said when they approached Nowlin they were not optimistic about the chances of his being able manage it with his schedule. But it turns out the president didn’t have a need for his services Saturday, she said, so he was there.

Nowlin said when he saw the names on the roster he thought: “What a great band.”

The ensemble included “so many great players and legendary Ohio educators.”

Many of them had been adjudicators at competitions that Nowlin’s high school bands played for while he was a teacher.

Dan Saygers front) with CMA Dean William Mathis and John Gruber perform “Concerto for Trombones.”

He was excited the way they approached the performance with “a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of passion, a lot of musicality, and a cerebral approach … added to the nostalgia of just being back.”

Nowlin said he learned from Kelly the importance of being confident, and “asking difficult questions of what you’re able to do” as an individual or as an ensemble. “Don’t not do something because it might be hard.”

It’s been years since Jennifer Higdon has played her flute regularly. She’s been too busy composing award-winning music. So she wasn’t a part of the alumni band. But she remembers playing the music on the program.

A self-taught flutist, the only band she’d played in previous to attending BGSU was the marching band in her Tennessee hometown.

Higdon said she learned a lot from Kelly. “Every day you come back to what you learned here at the College of Musical Arts, and Mr. Kelly was a big part of that.” That included lessons in “discipline, total discipline, but also a sense of humor. Both of these things have turned out to be very good in a professional career in music,” she said.

“He was very demanding. You learned how to play as an individual but also how to play as a member of a group.”

She was a flute performance major, not music education major, but she watched him work with the future teachers. “All those people were going out and teaching. What they’re doing is so important. It’s absolutely everything. It’s the hardest job in the world.”

Through those music educators, Higdon said, Kelly “touched tens of thousands of lives.”

When she was commissioned by the Midwest Clinic to compose a band piece, she wrote “Kelly’s Field,” in the band director’s honor. She also had him in mind when she composed a piece for junior high band.

Her time in band taught her important lessons as a composer as well. She learned about “the control of color,” she said. “Being inside the band and hearing all the different lines – Mr. Kelly would break it down in different sections. Listening to that taught me a lot about composing and orchestrating.”

Though she’s had a busy year with a number of pieces getting their premiere performances, she knew she had to make the trip back to Bowling Green even if it meant missing the final concerts at the festival where she was a guest.

Why? “It’s Mr. Kelly!”

Glenn Hayes was assistant band director under Kelly from 1982-1986, when Higdon was a student here.

“Mark had an unflinching passion for his students, work ethic and music education,” said Hayes, who is now director of bands at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “He was very disciplined. He’d have rehearsal, go home for dinner, then come back to listen for two hours to tapes of the rehearsal. He was very, very dedicated to his students and his family.”

That was true whether a student was a music major or not, Zimmerman said. He always took time to speak with and mentor non-music majors like himself. That probably took some time away from time with his family. For that, he said, they owned his late wife, Helen, and his daughters a debt of gratitude.

Zimmerman recalled being pleased and surprised when Kelly greeted him by name when he first showed up in the Falcon band room in 1975. Of course, that also meant the band director knew his name when calling his squad out for doing something wrong during practice.

Having begun just like a football game performance with drum cadences and “Forward Falcon,” the celebration ended with “Roll Out the Barrel.”

“He’s definitely here,” Nowlin said of Kelly, “and he always will be. He’s an important part of all of our lives.”