Drum corps veteran has wide range of experiences

by Jud Spena

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 2).

I first met Tom Meek in August 1984. He was the new director of the Rochester Crusaders. The Crusaders were in the midst of a heroic and ultimately successful struggle to stay alive. Tom had been with the corps since 1967 and took over the reins of an organization that had experienced a couple of very trying competitive seasons.

His hard work, dedication and perseverance were major factors in keeping the corps going.

Jud Spena: In 2006, you marked your 40th season marching in drum corps. How did you learn about drum corps?

Tom Meek: I first heard of drum corps in my pre-teen years. There was a kid who lived down the street who took trumpet lessons. We all thought he was a nerd because he was often unable to come out to play because he had to practice.

Then, come summer, he would often pass on play opportunities because he’d joined a local drum corps (whatever that was). I think it was the Dutch Town Ramblers from a Rochester neighborhood.

My actual introduction to drum corps came from my wife Di. She was a drum corps fan, at least partly because her dad had played with a local fire department drum corps, the Barnard Blue Devils, in the 1950s.

Some time shortly after we were married in 1963, she talked me into attending a winter indoor show in the Rochester War Memorial. It was love at first sight/sound. I was especially impressed by the then-great Syracuse Brigadiers with Corky Fabrizio contributing a number of what I think must have been double G’s on top.

We then started going to the local shows held at least once a summer in Aquinas, later Holleder, Stadium. I remember particularly enjoying Jack Bullock instructing the Geneva Appleknockers and falling in love with Hawthorne. I’ve been a Cabs fan ever since.

In 1965, we became excited about local senior corps when the Rochester Grey Knights and Hilton Crusaders merged over the pre-season winter. The merger, along with their aspirations of winning an American Legion Nationals, got a lot of favorable local press. We saw them a couple of times that summer, including at the old Jersey City Dream Contest, and became staunch fans.

When they actually beat the Cabs for that national championship in Portland, OR, we went from staunch to fervent fans. Over that winter, I found that I worked with two people in the corps and was able to get their summer schedule for 1966. Travel was much more local in those days than today, and Di and I were able to attend almost every 1966 show the Crusaders competed in that season.

JS: How did you come to join a corps?

TM: My start in drum corps began the following year. One of my friends from work, Tom Peashey, who was recently inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame, tried to convince me I should join the corps if I was going to go to every show. I declined the implied invitation because I’d never played an instrument — although I’m not sure that valve-slide G bugles could really be called instruments — and I was musically illiterate.

Not to be turned down easily, Tom showed up for dinner one night with a soprano bugle in his hand and the announcement that he was going to teach me how to play it. Well, he failed, as have many others over the years, but I’ve tenaciously stuck it out, determined to keep plugging until I finally learn how to play a bugle. Forty years of futile attempts — I’ve got to get a life!

Well, at any rate, the Crusaders were hurting for membership that year and I played third soprano for them in 1967. I’m convinced that my “making the line” that year was totally a combination of small numbers vs. 36 desired horns, and Eddie Mizma’s — co-director, brass arranger, instructor and drum major — kindness.

He is still, by the way, one of the kindest Christian people I’ve ever met. Some of our senior members used to call him “Eddie Good Guy.” Although it was friendly — it’s impossible to dislike Eddie — mockery, the name truly fit and he was and probably still is a great role model — one of my first real-life heroes.

Perhaps another reason for my making it was Diann’s joining the ladies auxiliary. She’s justifiably proud of her 25 years on the field with Crusaders, a tenure only she has accomplished, but she’s truly been active in drum corps for every one of my 40 years.

The Crusaders were an all-male corps in those days, as were many senior corps, and the auxiliary was a way for our ladies to be involved. I think many senior corps in those days had that kind of organization, modeled after the American Legion’s organization and that’s logical since just about every senior corps, then, was sponsored by a Legion post.

JS: You mention the merger of the Crusaders and Grey Knights being covered in the local media. Was this news of interest to the general population in and around Rochester? Can you say more about that?

TM: I think the merger of the two corps was of general interest. Rochester was a good drum corps town back in the 1960s. It still is, as you saw at DCA this past September, but drum corps has a much lower profile in the community than previously. Too many other activities and entertainment media are competing for attention.

Someone, however, did a great job with the publicity and playing up the theme that the merged corps could be a contender for the national championship. That type of hype is good publicity regardless of the activity. When the corps actually won, it was front-page news and the city had a welcoming ceremony for its new national champions.

JS: Can you say more about the drum corps scene in Rochester in the 1960s? I heard someone once say it seemed like there was a corps on every street corner. What do you say to that?

TM: That statement has a little poetic license in it. There were a bunch of drum corps in the 1950s and 1960s, though. I once heard someone say there used to be a Monroe County championship show and I don’t doubt it. Perhaps because there were so many corps, mostly junior, none of them was very large and none had much of an impact outside the area.

St. Joe’s of Batavia was the most notable junior, but wasn’t exactly from Rochester. It had members from Rochester, however. On the senior scene, both the Crusaders and the Grey Knights competed on a national level, but neither was considered a serious competitor until the 1965 merger. The Geneva Appleknockers were at about the same competitive level as the Rochester corps prior to the merger.

Monroe County did indeed have its own county championship in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That might be a great topic for another day.

JS: You have been marching since 1967 and you started with the Rochester Grey Knight Crusaders. Have you ever been in any other corps? And have you ever been involved with a junior corps?

TM: Until my grandson and I joined the Brigs in 2001, all my drum corps experience had been with the Crusaders. I began my drum corps career at the age of 23, too old for the juniors. Had it not been for Tom Peashey’s strong recruiting hype and Diann’s ceaseless encouragement and support, I’d still be just another fan.

My junior corps involvement was limited to a very brief stint helping with the Junior Crusaders, a short-lived corps started by Vince Bruni to be a feeder corps for the senior group.

JS: In all your years in drum corps, is there any one event that stands out for you as a high point?

TM: Yes there is, Jud. It was at DCA in 1984, my first year as director of the Crusaders.

We had come in 14th the prior two years and were hoping to at least make the top 12 that year. We knew that was a stretch because the corps had come out so late that season. We’d nearly folded and had been saved only by a great idea from Bill Decker, our drum guy, and Corky Fabrizio, our horn guy.

We’d essentially taken the summer off due to low membership and had sent our few people home in early May to recruit for a targeted August 1 restart. Fortunately, the recruiting worked, largely because Bill had been able to recruit some key Watkins Glen Squires alumni.

We assembled a small, somewhat talented, group at the beginning of August, learned a new show in three weeks and entered our first competition the week before DCA. I think we finished last in that one. The next week was DCA and the memorable moment followed prelims. We thought we’d done a pretty good job for only our second outing of the season. The prior week’s results had sobered our expectations.

Carl Essler, a fellow horn player and incredibly good friend, my wife and I were in the hotel room waiting for the prelim results. There was no one in the competition we could be sure of beating, so we had to wait until the last of the competitors’ scores was announced to know.

The phone rang and Norm LeFrois, the finest business manager DCA has ever seen, was on the other end of the call. “Congratulations, Tommy, we came in twelfth” are the words I remember, followed by some details of our resulting performance time at finals. Those details I didn’t remember at all. Not even sure I heard them clearly.

It’s hard to describe the rush of emotions the three of us shared in the next few minutes, so I won’t try. That, however, sticks out as my single most memorable drum corps moment. There have been some other great ones over the years, though. Close behind that finest DCA of all, are two other great ones, both involving family.

The first was in 2001. That was the year our younger daughter, Alana, was podium drum major for the Crusaders. I remember coming to the first halted moment of the show, looking up at the podium and almost missing my next note due to an overwhelming rush of pride.

A similar moment came in January 2007 at a Syracuse Brigadiers rehearsal. I was standing in the baritone line at the end of the horn arc during the ensemble portion of rehearsal. There, 10 feet from me, was my grandson, Joe Mitchell, Alana’s son, instructing our pit.

Some memories you take to the grave and drum corps provides plenty of those.

JS: You mentioned Eddie Mizma. Are there any other individuals you’ve worked with in drum corps that you would like to mention?

TM: That‘s a tough one. There have been so many exceptional people, yourself included, over the years that I could name hundreds and still exclude too many who also deserve mention. I could name hundreds, that is, if my memory still worked. That trite old expression that the ashes on top don’t mean that the fire inside has gone out is true. But the ashes are probably mostly made up of memory cells. At least that’s one excuse for the poor memory of old age.

You know, life can be tough at times, and we all need heroes to help us through the tough parts — or to inspire us to be more than we’d otherwise be. I’ve found drum corps to be an incredible source of heroes and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something of the hero in each of us just waiting for the right moment to pop out.

Maybe drum corps provides more of those moments than other activities. Maybe it’s because you get to know your fellow corps members pretty intimately and through some trying times as well as good ones. Hey, that might make a good premise for your next book!

Whatever the reason, I’ve found many heroes over the years — people who seem so ordinary and suddenly flash brilliant spurts of extraordinary behavior which can be downright inspiring.

A recent example is a young contra player the Brigs currently have. He’s still in high school and happens to be small in stature. When he stands next to the contra resting upright on its bell, he’s not much taller than it is. Kind of like the bumble bee, which scientists say is too large for its wings and therefore shouldn’t be able to fly.

Andy shouldn’t be able to lift that horn. His determination and persistence are incredible, however, and failure isn’t a word that enters his mind. That’s inspiring to see!

There is a constant stream of inspiring people and moments. You just need to be alert enough to find and appreciate them.

Come to think of it, that train of thought does bring up one person I need to mention, my wife, Diann, who’s shown me over the years just how important people are. She’s helped me turn from a logical, emotionless “Mr. Spock” into a people person, and has made my life incredibly richer as a result.

JS: Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. You have 40 years of time well spent in our beloved activity. Best wishes for many more.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jud Spena is currently band director and music department chair at the Chenango Valley Central Schools near Binghamton, NY. He is a member of the trumpet section of the Binghamton Philharmonic and author of “Echoes in the Valley,” a 226-page history of the Watkins Glen Squires and the 50 years of drum corps activity in Schuyler County in upstate New York. His ‘nuclear family,’ wife Rebecca and children Samantha, Lucy and Michael, are all musicians and avid drum corps fans.