Dix High School Marching Band 1955

Dix High School Marching Band 1955

The first time I heard or noticed Dan Fogelberg’s song, “The Leader of the Band,” I was in the early phases of a somewhat awkward road trip back to college in Ohio. My friend, Linda, had a visiting aunt and uncle who were driving back to their home in Dayton after spending the Christmas holidays in Nebraska. Somehow our families worked it out so we could cancel my expensive plane ticket and replace it with some gas money and an inexpensive night in a motel—who really wants to visit Iowa in post-holiday early January?

Turns out there was a good reason no one wants to visit Iowa then. By the time we had reached the Iowa border, winter had returned in full force, often forcing semis onto their sides on the icy roads. Luckily, Linda’s uncle was a cautious driver who took few risks—other than the fact we were on the road at all.

Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange, Senior Picture

Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange, Senior Picture

But before the weather changed, I remember riding on colorless roads through Nebraska, feeling generally bored, as most of us are prone to feel on drives through empty spaces, especially when we aren’t traveling with people we know well. I listened to the radio and thought a lot. When I started hearing the words of Fogelberg’s song, I instantly thought of my own mom, even though at that time, she was only tired because she was working long hours in her second career at the unemployment office in a time when too many people needed benefits.

My mom graduated from college at the height of the Korean Conflict. That meant that many jobs previously available to men were opened to women. And band director was one of those jobs. Like Fogelberg’s father, she was a school band director, but since she taught K-12 in rural Nebraska schools, she was also a choir director—and most likely in charge of the smallest child’s musical education.

When I came along a decade later, she had already taken time off to be home with my brother. Before I turned four, she was back working in the schools, bringing her songs with her. All my teen babysitters were her musicians, either vocal, instrumental, or both. Though she also taught piano lessons in our home, she wisely sent us to other teachers for our own lessons.

Mae playing piano, 1957

Mae playing piano, 1957

Our father ran the local drug store, which meant he worked all week except for Sunday. Mom had to do something with us when she had to escort her musicians to Saturday competitions. With most of her babysitters on the trips, she often chose to bring us along. I remember times when we rode the bus with the band and marched beside the band director through autumn parades. (Is it any wonder that when I was in band I could not join the band when our drum major started us on the wrong foot?) I spent days at music competitions, reading or drawing. At the end of the school year I often helped my mom sort the music back into its proper places.

Although my mom introduced me to more than my fair share of music, I didn’t turn out to be the musician she is. I’ve played piano, clarinet, violin, and oboe. Ever since my mom taught me to sing harmony while singing from the hymnal at church, I haven’t really been willing to sing unison. I sang in school, but my best memories are of the youth choirs my mom led at church and with my 4-H group in my teens. If I came home to visit after I had left home, she just might throw me into her bell choir at church. And I always say that it wasn’t an option for me not to have rhythm!

So the leader of the band was able to teach me how to sight read, just not how to want to practice. That’s why I think of myself as musical while I think of her as a musician. It’s just who she is—and who I think she will be until the end.

Mae singing with guys--no doubt as the high tenor!

Mae singing with guys--no doubt as the high tenor!

My mother was more than the leader of the band—she was one of those teachers who made personal connections with students. She was always leading someone in song, whether it was her students, people at church, in the community, or those in her extended family. While I have turned out to be merely musical, several of her family members are musicians, just as she has been. That is one of her greatest joys.

The leader of the band is definitely getting tired now. It’s not her eyes, like in the song. No, unfortunately it’s her essence that is growing dim. I have no answers for that, but know that I need to be with her in these confusing times and always remember that her song is in my soul.

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