Although it is common for people to meet new people who have some impact on your life, it is quite rare for a new acquaintance to have a positive, lasting impact. This, however, has happened to me. Although I had only just met him at the time, I can only guess three reasons why George N. Parks’ words and advice stuck with me so well. (First, perhaps his teachings themselves were unique and I caught on immediately, second, maybe his manner of speaking and his methods of delivery were unusual, or third, it could be the fact that he died less than two months after my week-long encounter with him.) The first reason is not true, and I know this because I had heard the phrases before: “Treat others as you would want to be treated” or “You only get one first impression.” These lessons were certainly not new to me, so I have to go with the other two reasons as a pair.
In June 2010, I was selected as one of three students to be drum major for my high school’s marching band. This position carries a decent amount of responsibility and a huge amount of pride. Part of the training for drum major is to attend the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy, which is held throughout the country, throughout each summer. Parks, then a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was known as a national authority on drum major practices and training. As I said, I had heard his theme of lesson before, either from teachers or motivational speakers brought into the high school, but this time it was different, especially after the fact. One morning, as my father was driving me to school, I received a text message from a fellow drum major. “Did you hear the news?” it said. “I’ll tell you when I see you at school.” That is when I first heard about Parks’ tragic death: he was on the way to the biggest performance of his career and had just finished a performance at a high school when he died of a heart attack at only 57 years old. When I realized that it was true, I do not even know exactly what was going through my mind: his “starred thoughts,” little tidbits of advice that he wanted us to heed; the repetitive practice of physical skills we learned, such as conducting music; or even his sing-song mnemonics, used to remember the order of which to perform certain procedures. It all became a blend. His teachings of kindness and sympathy towards people proved themselves when I returned home that afternoon and checked online for more information; I found that almost immediately, tens of thousands of his former students joined together in, not mourning his death, but celebrating his life. This shows the respect that this number of people had for him. Most of these people only knew him in the capacity that I did, for a single week. Over 700 drum majors participated in “The George N. Parks Salute Project,” in which they sent in pictures of themselves saluting to be made into a collage and given to the Parks family. Almost 12,000 people are members of an online group in his memory and about 1,000 participated in a marching band at a memorial service for him, which had to be moved to a larger facility because of the sheer number of attendees. This lends itself to the respect and admiration that Parks received, even from students from many years past.
Parks’ most driving lesson was to be kind to others. If it came down to it, he would not have cared how well we could conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner” or how well we could march in a block, only that we were model citizens of society and treated each other with the utmost respect. This is also one lesson of his that I have taken to heart. By no means am I saying that I was apathetic to people before the Drum Major Academy, but I am confident that Parks’ teachings had a positive impact on how I treat the people around me. And while it cannot really be measured, I am sure that thousands of his other protégés feel exactly the same that I do.