George B. and Me

by Terry Keenan

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A lot has been written over the last month on Web sites and personal letters about the passing of George Bonfiglio, the all-time director of the 27th Lancers and one of DCI’s Founding Fathers.

DCW Publisher Steve Vickers reached out to me personally to contribute a viewpoint from someone that had a very close relationship with this drum corps icon. I am truly honored to be asked to offer a private glimpse of not only one of the founders of DCI, but also a man who I can now look back on and truly appreciate as a major contributor to the success in my own life.

There are a lot of stories that go behind the scenes about the 27th Lancers and George B. I can openly state that most of the stories about the corps are true. We were always poor! The stories about George are a mix of fact, fiction and a lot of folklore.

George Bonfiglio was a visionary, an autocratic manager, truly passionate and an absolute leader who always had the final say on everything. He was also one of the proudest men on Earth. Together with his late wife Patsy, he built the biggest “mom and pop operation’ in drum corps history.

Self-described as “the benevolent dictator,” he knew that he would always be a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy because his chosen path in life required him to be that way. Beyond the drum corps, he was also an auto mechanics teacher at an urban high school without a single Rhodes Scholar under his tutelage!

A devout Catholic, George stood up to the priests at Immaculate Conception on principle over the Reveries because he refused to turn away the kids from outside the church parish. A few years later, George once again stood up against the establishment of Veteran’s committees running the drum corps activity.

It was George Bonfiglio and his colleagues at the top who promoted change in drum corps by challenging the under-achieving current state with little or no regard for pending consequences. Fittingly, it was George who was voted by his peers as the first DCI Chairman of the Board.

There has recently been an amazing outpouring of love to George from thousands, yet there are possibly just as many who never liked the man due to competitive issues and philosophies. Like any business leader at the time, he was an autocrat; no different than a postal manager or union leader. Everything in the world back then was black and white, with no room for grey.

Looking back, I regret that all those other people simply never got a chance to know this man like I did. The persona of George B. was a cross between a stern General George Patton, a Bill Parcells authoritarian type and a high risktaker; a poor man’s Donald Trump, if you will, who gambled on people to help him keep 2-7 a viable and thriving organization.

Most of all, he was simply a proud parent not only of his own five children, but also thousands of the rest of us. I was absolutely fortunate as one of the many outside of his immediate family to know, appreciate and admire all sides of George B.

Under George, I was a marching member, a member of his visual staff, his corps manager in our last year competing in 1986 and again in our alumni year in 1994. This man watched — and too many times endured — my maturation over almost four decades. Through all that, I look at this man that I now consider “the Kahuna” as my dear friend and mentor.

I first met George in December 1972 after being summoned to a meeting with him in a grammar school cafeteria. There I was, an intimidated 14-year-old, being told that he thought I may be too young to march. That was the first time George gambled on me to succeed. From that wager on his part, I marched seven years with a World. Class DCI drum corps; another rare fact in today’s world due to personal sacrifice and costs.

A few years later, after a couple of failed attempts at college on my part, I returned in 1985 as a member of the Lancers’ drill staff. Back with the corps as a staff member was a little weird for me because I had always been a “goof-off” as a member. Once again, George wagered on me.

At the end of that season, George asked me to become the corps manager. Once again, he gambled on me because he wanted me to bring my passion and resilience for the corps members to emulate as a positive influence. It was my first official leadership position and George instinctively knew he would get my best effort even though I had no formal managerial skills at the time.

I have always stated that our final year in 1986 — despite all the tragedy that culminated — was one of my favorite-ever drum corps seasons thanks to George and his will to succeed. History will show that we came within a few tenths of pulling off a drum corps miracle. We had a great program, possibly ahead of its time, with a new-found concept of a “theme” show, an extremely talented staff working for a ton of “pro-bono” hours and a membership exhibiting George B.’s will to succeed with nothing more than guts for glory!

In 1986, scores were kept from the crowd until the end of the night; yet the groups knew each other’s numbers. I was standing there in the endzone at Madison with George when his dear friend, Gail Royer, approached us both, actually crying upon hearing about us missing finals.

That was my first hearing that we were “out of business.” George looked at his friend and said something about “. . . going out as a champ!” In my private “letter to George” a few weeks ago, I referred to that moment and thanked him for “. . . making me a champ” in my professional life.

Throughout that final competitive season, George taught me so much in decision-making and cognitive thinking as a manager. He knew that he had nothing more to work with than my passion for “the home team,” yet he gave me an ability to not be afraid to do the right thing. He was the first to train me in risk analysis, cost benefit and weighing risk-reward and the understanding behind any needed “snap decision” or statement coming from a member of his leadership team.

George gave me more information “off the top of his head” than years of textbooks could possibly offer and, at times, I tried to filter and absorb his    advice and information as quickly as he was sharing it. It only became tough to comprehend when I simply couldn’t keep up with him.

With all that, it was George Bonfiglio who openly stated that he wanted me to know about experiences from his past “trials and errors” and to learn from those situations so that I would never have to learn the hard way and make any similar mistakes. I learned more “on the job” training from my 1986 drum corps season than most college graduates could ever learn in any form of a “management trainee” program through a corporate environment.

Almost 10-years ago, I relocated to the West Coast and am now a plant manager, running a multi-million-dollar division in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley. I am now one of the tens of thousands who “went pro in another field,” thinking of that now-famous NCAA advertisement during the “Final-Four.”

I thank George Bonfiglio for my “on-the-job” experiences as much as my formal degree in Industrial Management from Northeastern University in Boston that gave me the ability to turn challenges into opportunities for success.

I thank Northeastern for giving me the knowledge to know how, and the spirit and wisdom of George B., for gambling all those times on me and giving me the fortitude to just “do it, and do it now!”

In today’s business world and double-digit recovery, my need to create change in the    workplace in order to accommodate such increases in production has handed me my own similar challenges. My resiliency to respond to growing demands, combined with a need to control expenses have left me at times feeling like “the guy spinning the plates at the circus!” This current reference has me feeling much like George did while directing the 27th Lancers. Again, NU gave me the textbook tools, but it was George B. who gave me his gift of leadership skills.

I will contend that, although there are many great directors in drum corps today, there will NEVER be another George Bonfiglio. Armed with nothing more than an army of mercenaries as staff members and a gang of faithful disciples for corps members, he built a highly-successful operation fueled by his determination to succeed and resiliency to keep trying.

Now that I am three time zones away, my chances to catch up with everyone back home are now rare, but certainly appreciated. In what will forever be our final time together last summer in Indianapolis, George and I shared a lot of laughs, combined with his interest in my new life and responsibilities in California.

I remember telling him that it has taken me years to adjust to a passively-aggressive working world where “the customer is always right, even when he isn’t!”

At first, George looked almost disappointed in me, but allowed me to continue for a moment. I went on    to say that many times I have been challenged as perhaps being “too East Coast” and gruff as a manager. He jolted in his chair and yelled something to the point of, “I hope you took care of those ‘weak sisters’!” He then went on to proudly state that Silicon Valley would have never been able to put up with him. We both laughed incessantly after that remark.

We also agreed that today’s business world is a series of “shades of grey.” There is never any black and white in the world anymore. Every decision has an effect and a pending impact, and resisting change is usually considered a safe bet. Although inevitable, change in any environment needs a few things that we both agreed upon. Realizing a need for change and creating a sense of urgency to complete something new gave George a chance to reflect and offer that only a risk-taker with enough endurance and resilience can make universal changes in any environment.

He lectured me like an elderly scholar and told me how experienced I should be in doing the right thing. He proudly reminded me of his results from risk-taking, speaking out and not worrying about perceptions or consequences as long as common goals were established and beneficial for everyone.

We concluded that discussion point with me letting him know that the next time I was to be challenged, I would wonder, “So, do you think I’m too East Coast? Consider yourself lucky that I’m no George B.” We both laughed again AT and ABOUT each other.

Later that same night, we had another private moment when he shared what is now my total understanding of his life as the DCI director of my hometown team, the 27th Lancers. He shared with me a conversation he had a few years ago with his wife Patsy. Back in the day, Patsy ran all the finances for the drum corps. He asked Patsy how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it had cost them to run the corps over the course of 19 years. After Patsy answered his question, George shared with me his response to her as, “. . . the best and most sound Investment WE   ever made.”

An icon in drum corps history, a statesman on behalf of Drum Corps International, a long-tenured educator in his public life; I will always feel fortunate to have known George Bonfiglio as a director of a drum corps I marched with as a kid.

Over the many years that have passed since the intimidated 14-year-old first met the man, I feel extremely lucky and blessed to have known George B. as a dear friend and mentor.