Remembering Joe Swanek

by Jim Centorino, DCW staff

This article was published originally in the May 2009 issue of Drum Corps World (Volume 38, Number 2).

Recently, the drum corps community lost a friend and follower, whose name may not be familiar to some, but whose presence was undeniable to many.

I met Joe Swanek, of Shelton, CT, sometime in the late ’60, when I was marching with the Boston Crusaders. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he would become a family friend for the rest of his life and mine.

Joe was a photographer who followed and shot pictures of drum corps for decades. He was a wealth of information about the activity and, even more so, about the people who have been involved in it. He knew about you, who you marched with, who won the show on a particular date, what the weather was like during the prelims or during a parade, or whatever.

The thing is, when I sat down to write about Joe’s life, I realized that I knew little about the man himself. So, I called some longtime friends — Moe Knox (whose photographic legacy will never be duplicated), Joe “JAG” Anthony (who has recorded enough drum corps performances to qualify him for the Book of World Records) and Rich Kosztyu, a friend, assistant, driver, helper and traveling aide of Joe’s. I also called another mutual friend, Ritchee Price, whose musical accomplishments are beyond legendary. Ritchee would tell me stories and anecdotes relating to Joe’s conversations and travels. “Priceless” stuff.

For those who didn’t know him, Joe Swanek was a man small of stature, but big of heart. His physical disabilities originally sprang from a calcium deficiency when he was very young that had the effect of weakening his bones to the breaking point. This led to muscular degeneration and the need for a wheelchair or crutches. His father used to take him to drum corps shows for exercise and social activity by pushing him to the 50 yard line and parking his wheelchair there.

When Joe caught the D&B bug, he began photographing the corps from the sidelines. Most people have seen him before (it’s hard to miss a four-foot man with steel crutches, glasses, a big smile and a camera that seemed larger than he was), but it’s a good bet that only a couple of people knew that he shot slides instead of prints.

My own acquaintance with Joe was strengthened in 1984 when I graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music with a Master’s Degree in Composition and Trumpet. As part of the graduation requirements, composers were to give a recital of their work. I opted to give a concert of my original pieces outside, at Waterfront Park beside historic Faneuil Hall in Boston, in the shadow of the noisy, bustling area that used to have the elevated Central Artery that has since been replaced by the infamous “Big Dig” project.

Joe “JAG” showed up in “Jag’s” white van, having driven up from Connecticut. They pulled up close to the performing area, opened the van’s sliding door and proceeded to set up their recording equipment. Since this was all a surprise to me, I was flabbergasted but grateful to them for their generosity and efforts. The resulting concert featured performers of all ages and backgrounds that included Boston Pops musicians, Boston Conservatory students, friends and even students from Winchester High School, where I taught Science at the time.

The recording process was a huge challenge due to the gusting ocean breezes and the noises of traffic and casual passers-by. But these added sounds ended up giving an organic quality to the tape. Joe and “Jag” caught every musical nuance, every breath, even every piano pedal squeak (Tony Ciulla, who owned and operated Super Snooty Seafoods, rented a grand piano for the occasion and had it delivered to the concert site, right on the grass!) and no sound went unrecorded.

Joe and “JAG” were truly the technicians’ technicians and impressed all performers and audience members (including my dad, who was very ill, but had a front-row seat at the concert and ended up talking with them for quite a while at the reception that followed at Morelli’s Restaurant). Joe Swanek had made such an impression that my dad often spoke about him in the remaining months of his life.

Joe’s birthday was Christmas. As a result, for many years I have sent him a birthday card inside a Christmas card. I called him on his birthdays and wished him a Merry Christmas and spoke about all things musical and drum corps, and beyond. He was a classical music lover and, although I never personally saw his home studio, others who have been there described it as a collage of pictures on every wall and a maze of electronics.

His love of music and pictures extended his friendships to the local classical music radio stations and the local Knights of Columbus, where he and his “brother knights” donated their time and efforts. During his later years, Joe’s health began to deteriorate with the onset of leukemia. Nevertheless, he and Rich Kosztyu made the weekend travels to model train shows. There is something about model trains that fascinates us all and Joe was no exception. The interesting aspects of that activity became all the more likeable for him because it is an indoor sport, with weather never an issue.

Joe Swanek inspired me, as he inspired so many others, to look beyond physical handicaps, to triumph over the roadblocks and unfortunate circumstances that, for him, were almost unfathomable to us. He “showed up” in spite of the odds against him and made his mark on society. Those of us who were privileged enough to know this man are the fortunate ones and those who had seen him and had not known his name, do now.