Contributed by Dr. Paul G. Fisher, Millersville, PA
The name John Philip Sousa generates widely encompassing thoughts involving history, bands, music and entertainment. “Sousa” especially connotes musicianship, royalty, the highest of standards… and to this ten-year-old cornetist Sousa meant all of this – and more.
My esteemed cornet teacher, Eugene Z. Weidner, conductor of the Ringgold Band, had indoctrinated his young student with the names of Sousa, Edwin Franko Goldman, Herbert L. Clarke, Del Staigers, Frank Simon, Walter Rogers. These highly respected musicians were all friends of Mr. Weidner, mostly through their mutual membership in the American Bandmasters Association. (All of those mentioned came to Reading in the 1930s as guest soloists or conductors with the Ringgold Band.)
What a huge disappointment it was for me to be stricken with a serious viral infection the week Sousa was to appear with the Ringgold Band in their annual Spring Concert planned for March 6, 1932. My doctor had advised my parents that I should not be in public in my condition – But I wanted to see Sousa!
In this special case it was determined that an edict can always be bent – but not broken. Mr. Weidner allowed my father and I so stand in the hallway outside the rehearsal room so I could observe Mr. Sousa in his rehearsal with the band. On that Saturday night preceding the Sunday concert date, Sousa rehearsed his portion of the program with few suggestions. (The band had been well rehearsed and ready for this great occasion.) The rehearsal concluded with Sousa conducting his “Stars and Stripes Forever” with little flourish and no comments.
Sousa’s small conducting gestures were noticeable to me. Was this his natural style, or a sign of old age, even serious illness?
My father and I quickly left the second floor hallway of the band building and went home discussing and reveling in the great conductor and band we had just observed and heard. The inspiration of the evening continued to live on and motivate this young cornet player – and it still does today!
We were totally unprepared and devastated by the news heard the next day: John Philip Sousa had died early that morning in his room in the Abraham Lincoln Hotel (known today as Lincoln Plaza). The entire band world was shocked and saddened by the death of their revered leader.