Several years ago Gene Hunt was camping in Champaign, Ill., when his cellphone rang around 10 a.m. It was a former student calling out of the blue, one from his first year leading the band program at Washington High School in 1964.
“You probably don’t remember me,” she told him, but he did.
“You played in a clarinet trio the first year I taught,” he said to her.
It had been more than 40 years since Hunt had been the woman’s teacher, but she felt compelled to call him suddenly just to say “thank you.” She had told many people over the years of Hunt’s influence on her life, she explained to him, but she had never said it directly to him and felt it was important.
“What a thrill!” remarked Hunt, now seated in the dining room of his Washington home. “Every once a while, those kinds of rewards come.”
Since he retired in 1994, Hunt has often thought back on his 30-year teaching career with Washington, but this year is especially momentous as it marks the 50th anniversary of the first marching band festival held in Washington.
Hunt organized that first festival here in 1968 and over the years developed and built it into one of the most prestigious in the state, which it still is today.
Always held the first Saturday in October, the WHS Marching Band Festival, as it has been known since 1970, draws dozens of schools and thousands of students and spectators from across the region for parade and field competitions.
For Hunt, who has volunteered at every festival except one since he retired, it’s a great source of pride to see (and hear) all these years later.
But, of course, Hunt contributed more than just the legacy of a band festival to the community.
In his 30 years at Washington, Hunt served as band director, supervisor of music K-12 and chairman of the high school music department.
He also was an active participant in many musical and educational organizations, often serving in leadership roles at the local, district and state levels. Most notably, Hunt served as band vice president for the Missouri Music Educators Association.
He influenced and shaped the futures of hundreds of Washington students who have described him as “a role model” and someone who “taught the importance of working together, functioning as part of a team and, most importantly, having pride in yourself, your peers and your community.”
“He made marching band more than a class — he made it part of the identity of all the students he instructed,” one former student said.
Hunt received numerous honors for his work, dedication and perseverance. Among them was the Missouri Outstanding Band Director Award from Phi Beta Mu Bandmasters Fraternity in 1991 and being inducted into the Missouri Bandmasters Hall of Fame in 2006.
In 2012, Hunt was inducted to the Washington School Districts’ WINGS Educational Foundation Hall of Honor and presented with the Educator Award.
The foundation for all of that success began in grade school.
‘Mom, You Were Right’
Born in Independence, Kan., in 1942, Hunt was in the third or fourth grade when he began taking piano lessons at his mother’s insistence.
In fifth grade, when Hunt could begin playing a band instrument at school, he dropped piano and took up the trumpet. Years later, as a college senior, he would feel some regret about that.
“To graduate with a music degree, you have to pass piano proficiency,” Hunt explained. “Here I’d given up piano in fourth grade to play trumpet . . . and now I had to pass this piano proficiency test.”
He had already earned an A for his trumpet recital, been awarded Outstanding Male Music Graduate, and signed a contract to begin working at Washington High School that fall, but now the piano was standing in his way. He sat down at the keys and began studying what he needed to know.
The work paid off. Hunt passed his piano proficiency and graduated from Phillips University in Enid, Okla., in 1964 with a Bachelor of Music Education and a 3.8 GPA.
“My curse was my mom saying, ‘Someday you’ll regret this,’ and I was sitting there as a college senior thinking, ‘Mom, you were right. I should have kept playing piano,’ ” Hunt said with a smile.
Before he decided to study music, Hunt was torn between music or becoming a minister. What helped him make up his mind was attending a couple of music camps at K State and KU.
“I decided if I could survive seven weeks of those camps, that’s what I would do. So I did,” he said.
“I went to (Independence)Community College and that helped me grow up and mature. Then I went to Phillips University.
“On Sunday evenings, some of the ministerial students would go out to smaller churches to give evening services, and I’d go along and play my trumpet,” said Hunt. “We called ourselves the God Squad.”
From 60 Band Students to 200-Plus
When Hunt was hired by Washington School Superintendent Dr. Don Northington as WHS band director, there were about 60 students in the band. By the time he retired, there were consistenly between 190 and 220.
There was no football program at the school in 1964, so while the band did perform some marching activities, it was nothing like what people know today, said Hunt.
Yet knowing that was the direction the school was headed, Hunt in 1965 took his band students to Central Methodist Marching Festival in Fayette to observe field shows. And that fall, his WHS students marched their first field shows.
Then in 1968, Hunt organized the first marching band festival in Washington, the Four Rivers Conference Marching Band Festival.
To help it grow, Hunt made it an invitational festival in 1969, but kept the name the same. Then in 1970, the name was changed to the WHS Marching Band Festival, as it’s known today.
The first invitational festival was held Oct. 11, 1969, on the Washington City Park football field, since WHS didn’t have a football field of its own yet, said Hunt.
The first judges were John Patterson, of Columbia Hickman High School, Darrell Hendon of Fulton High School, and Carl Walker of East Central College.
There were 11 schools participating in the parade and 10 in the field competition.
“The festival really grew once it became an invitational,” said Hunt. “It started becoming a major deal.”
In 1993, for the festival’s 25th anniversary, there were 46 schools competing, and the program listed 111 different schools that had competed at the festival over the 25 years.
In fact, at one time there were so many schools competing that the field competition had to be started even before the parade competition had finished.
“We couldn’t possibly get it all in otherwise,” said Hunt.
“For a lot of years, we had 40 to 50 schools a year and 4,000 to 5,000 kids a year here. That was possible then, because when we started there were very few marching festivals.”
Those numbers are nearly impossible to duplicate these days, mainly because on any given Saturday during the competition season, there are five to six or more festivals for schools to chose from, Hunt pointed out.
There were two years during Hunt’s tenure that the band festival had to be canceled — in 1986, due to a flood (it was rescheduled, but that never worked out) and in 1988 due to rain.
Assistants, Band Boosters Integral to Success
As the size of the WHS Marching Band Festival grew, it quickly became more than a one-person operation. Hunt credits his many assistants with making both the band program and the festival a success.
These included: Levere Barnett, Rebecca Friesen, Sue Bright, Bruce Barnett, Larry Smith, Agnes Nolting, Jo (Nolting) Phinney, who was a freshman at WHS when he first called on her to choreograph a percussion feature, and Mary Hopp.
The assistants were always key to making sure the festival ran smoothly, said Hunt.
“They ran the parade downtown. They got it organized . . . And also before the festival begins, they assemble all the judges sheets . . . they play a significant part in running the festival,” he noted.
Hunt’s wife of 54 years, Kay, who worked as a teacher at WHS also, had been both a drum major and a twirler, and she assisted him for band practices and at the annual festival.
As a teacher, she scheduled her free period to be at the same time as the band period, so she could come help the color guard and drum majors, said Hunt. She also spent countless hours creating forms and typing letters that Hunt needed prepared, helped with the band’s annual Orange and Grapefruit Sale fundraiser and took the lead in raising the couple’s two sons, Tim, who now lives in Kansas, and Terry, who lives in Union.
“Behind every successful man is an even better woman, and she was that,” Hunt said, smiling.
In addition to the band assistants, Hunt and the entire band program also grew to depend on the Band Boosters, parents of band students who initially came together only to lend Hunt a hand in getting things done.
“Those first years, I ran everything — the concession stand, the show, everything,” said Hunt.
Then Gloria Uhrmann, who had children in the band, had the idea to create a booster club, and she called on her cousin, Ruth Wood, who also had children in the band, to help.
“Originally we did things like make sure the uniforms were in good condition when the kids were going on the field, and we chaperoned them on bus trips, and it was mostly helping the kids out,” said Wood. “Somehow we got into bake sales and fundraising too.”
She and all of those early Band Boosters parents laugh at that idea now, mainly because they distinctly remember Hunt telling them the boosters were not going to be about making money. He remembers it too.
“We said the purpose of the group was to assist the band director,” Hunt recalled, “to lighten the load, it would not be a money-making organization. We laugh about that now, because that’s what it became very much, and the band program couldn’t have survived without that.”
From a parent’s perspective, Wood said the Band Boosters didn’t mind doing as much work as they did because of all that Hunt was doing for their children and the program.
“We were willing to do so much because he did so much,” she said.
“I think he brought an infusion of energy to the whole band program,” Wood remarked. “He was very energetic and really put himself out there. He was demanding, but fun. He was demanding in that he wanted the kids to do a good performance, yet he wanted them to enjoy doing it at the same time.”
‘Always Had Good Ideas’
Hunt was known for finding the right people to help him create the kind of field shows he wanted each year. Phinney, who choreographed that percussion feature her freshman year, recalled how her age didn’t matter. He recognized her talent and experience.
“That year he decided to do ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ because he had an awesome percussion section, and he wanted the whole band to do this ‘Little Soldier’ routine,” said Phinney. “He called me, this little green freshman, in and asked if I could do it.”
Phinney, whose had been running her own dance studio at that point, was well-known for her choreography ability.
She choreographed the routine and taught it to him so he could teach it to the rest of the students, but instead he called upon her to give the instruction.
“I was just a little freshman, and these were all older students,” Phinney recalled, with a laugh. “But it turned out to be reallly good.
“He always had good ideas of what he wanted and would keep trying to find the right people to make what he wanted,” she added. “He was a genius.”
Goal Was Always Improvement
Under Hunt’s leadership, the WHS band program earned numerous awards and honors and was recognized statewide for its marching band, concert band and solo-ensemble program.
Yet, for Hunt, the goal was never just to win, but rather to have the students improve and learn.
“We always considered a marching season successful if we were better at the end than at the beginning,” he said. “I never stressed winning, just can we do better this week than we did last week, just improvement. I tried to stress to the kids, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Let’s give 100 percent.
“I wanted them to carry that with them through their lives — whatever they did, give it 100 percent. If you don’t achieve what you want, that’s OK, as long as you’ve given it everything,” said Hunt.
In fact, one of the reasons Hunt organized that first marching festival in 1968 was to provide his students and others around the state a chance to get some feedback on their show before attending the Greater St. Louis Marching Festival.
“Ours was always the first Saturday in October, because at that time, that’s when field shows started. Schools would have their show ready by Oct. 1. I wanted to have the first one of the year so bands could prepare for the Greater St. Louis Marching Festival,” said Hunt.
Today in marching band festivals, judges do “caption judging,” meaning each judge focuses on one element of the competition, things like marching, music or general effect, Hunt explained.
“We didn’t do that,” he said. “We had each judge do all of the captions, because I wanted the band directors to get as much input as they could from everybody, because if you look at a show, you see something different than I do. And I wanted the band directors to take home as much information as they could about their shows so they could improve.
“I wanted the kids and the directors to learn from this,” he said. “It gave them valuable input before the Greater St. Louis festival, which was usually held the third or fourth Saturday in October, a few weeks after ours, so they had several weeks to make changes and improve.”
As the band director, Hunt said his purpose was always about providing as many opportunities as possible for his and other students too.
“When I had 65 kids in the band, I had every one participate in an ensemble, smaller groups like brass sextet or quartet, and I had them do that because that way I could work with them individually and build a band program,” said Hunt.
“Then when we got so big that we had two bands, I had everybody from the top band be in an ensemble and I would fill in from the other band when I didn’t have enough to make the number of ensembles I wanted.”
In 1967, Hunt organized the Four Rivers Conference All-Conference Band and served as chairman from 1969 until he retired in 1994.
“That provided even more opportunities for my kids because now they could perform with select kids from the conference, and it also pulled in conference kids and let them be in a select group, like students from smaller programs that never really got to play in a bigger group,” said Hunt.
He also led the movement that resulted in the Missouri State High School Activities Association allowing a school to enter two concert bands for adjudication at the State Music Festival.
“When we had a large program like we did, I wanted all my kids to have a chance to perform at state,” said Hunt. “So I worked to get a rule that we could take more than one band to state contests.
“And at all big schools, more kids could participate at the concert band level.”
Washington Became Home
The band students and their parents embraced Hunt and his family, so much so that early in his time at WHS, the boosters held something akin to a mini-demonstration on his street just to show how much they wanted him to stay.
“It was very dramatic,” Wood recalled, noting the word was that he was considering a job elsewhere. “I don’t even know if it was true or just a rumor that he was leaving, but it went quickly through the band students and parents and there was a whole congregation of people on his street saying ‘Don’t go!’ It was pretty unusual.”
Phinney wasn’t yet in high school at the time, but her sisters were, and she remembers participating in the demonstration too.
“That really stuck in my head how much people really appreciated him,” she said.
Hunt said when he and Kay came to Washington, the initial plan was to only stay a few years, but it grew to feel like home. They liked the town and its nearness to St. Louis, which offered other opportunities.
“We could raise our kids in a small community but still go to St. Louis for those other things,” said Hunt.
“It’s a great community to live in, and we had great support from everyone.”