George N. Parks, UMass Band Director, Dies at 57

From the University of Massachusetts Amherst Office of News and Media Relations

AMHERST, Mass. – Music professor George N. Parks, who led the Minuteman Marching Band to national prominence during his 33-year career, died Sept. 16 after suffering an apparent heart attack following a performance in Ohio.

Parks, 57, and the band were en route to Michigan to perform at Saturday’s football game at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Despite the loss of their director, band members have decided to play at the game, according to Jeff Cox, who chairs the Department of Music and Dance.

A nationally recognized band leader, Parks’ charismatic persona inspired thousands of band members who devoted endless hours to drills, practices, road trips and public performances while also pursuing their academic studies.

“This is an extraordinary loss,” wrote Chancellor Robert Holub and James Staros in an e-mail to the campus community. “George’s devotion to excellence, his creativity and his passion for teaching inspired us all and shaped the lives of thousands of students during the three decades that he directed The Power and Class of New England. Truly, he represented the best of UMass.”

Under Park’s leadership, the band received the Louis C. Sudler Trophy, the nation’s top marching band honor, from the John Philip Sousa Foundation in 1998. Last year, the band was named one of the best in the country by the website Bleacher Report.

“Their band director is well known for teaching thousands of high school drum majors how to lead,” said the article. “Their percussion instructor is legendary. They perform one show a year and perfect it to musical perfection. Every high school band looks up to them with a similar style to the vast majority of high schools. They are the Power and Class of New England. And not much more can be said.”

In a 2004 cover story in SBO magazine, Parks offered his view of the ensemble that was the centerpiece of his career: “Everybody knows the band is good and the band is strong. When you’re in a school band, you have a wide variety of bands and a wide variety of impressions about bands. In some high school bands, everybody loves the group. You have other high school bands where kids struggle sometimes to get a positive identity. They come to campus here and they see a band jacket and they say, ‘Oh, you’re in the Minuteman Marching Band.’ The professors comment to them, and it’s a very positive experience here. We’ll do a post-game show and you’ll generally see 75 to 90 percent of the fans have stayed to watch the show again.”

Along with halftime shows and community performances around the country, Parks also led the band during performances at the presidential inaugurations in 1981, 1985 and 2001 as well as three Bands of America Grand Nationals, most recently in 2004.

An accomplished music educator and band instructor, Parks led a summer band leadership training seminar and drum major academy that drew upwards of 3,000 participants from across the country each year. He was the author of “The Dynamic Drum Major,” published in 1984 by C.L. Barnhouse Co. He was also involved with Bands of America for more than 20 years and led its honor band in the Tournament of Roses Parade in 2008 and 2004.

Parks was enshrined in the Bands of America Hall of Fame in 2006. “Parks’ enthusiastic and entertaining approach to the marching band resulted in instant success with the football fans throughout the Northeast,” said the organization’s announcement. “Parks has encouraged his students to reach for the stars in an effort to obtain their highest goals.”

Since 1997, when the closure of the Old Chapel forced the band to relocate its offices, Parks was also a tireless advocate for a permanent band facility on campus. Last year, Parks and campus officials broke ground for a $5.7 million building near Dickinson Hall. More than $1 million in private donations, contributed in large part by band alumni, is helping to fund the project. The building is expected to open next spring.

In addition to serving as the campus’ musical ambassador, Parks was involved for many years with the UMass Amherst Charitable Campaign (UMACC), serving as its honorary chairman and motivational guru. He and his band members were also a fixture at the annual Merry Maple tree lighting held every December on the Amherst town common.

As a member of the Music faculty, Parks taught the tuba and conducting. In 1989, he was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award. His other campus honors included a Chancellor’s Medal for service to the campus and an Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Scholarly and Creative Activity. He was also named a honorary alumnus by the Alumni Association.

A native of Buffalo, he was a graduate of West Chester University in Pennsylvania and Northwestern University, where he earned his master of music degree.

He performed with the Delaware and Springfield symphonies and often served as an adjudicator for marching and concert band competitions.

Parks made his first appearance on the national scene as drum major of the award-winning Reading Buccaneers Senior Drum and Bugle Corps. He helped lead the Buccaneers to two DCA World Championships and received numerous individual honors, including eight DCA Championship Drum Major Awards and induction into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame.

Parks leaves his wife, Jeanne, and two children, Michael and Kathryn.

Plans for a campus tribute are still being developed, according to the chancellor.

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