Raymond J. Dombrowski Scholarship Fund concert today

by CynthiaYockey on March 8, 2009

Raymond J. Dombrowski, high school band director, before the August 2006 Bel Air High School Band Reunion Concert in his honor

Raymond J. Dombrowski, high school band director, before the August 2006 Bel Air High School Band Reunion Concert in his honor

Gold Medal of Polish Armed Forces Awarded: The recent General Casimir Pulaski birthday ceremonies in Baltimore took on an added special significance when Commander Raymond J. Dombrowski (pictured above, left), Polish Legion of American Veterans - General Casimir Pulaski Post 209, was awarded the esteemed Gold Medal of the Polish Armed Forces by Brigadier General Kazimierz Sikorski (at right), Military Attach  at the Embassy of Poland. Dombrowski was recognized for fostering and growing fraternal relations between Poland and America by preserving and promoting their shared military traditions and history. (Click on photo for source of photo and caption.)

On March 11, 2007, the Gold Medal of Polish Armed Forces was awarded to Commander Raymond J. Dombrowski (pictured above, left), Polish Legion of American Veterans - General Casimir Pulaski Post 209, by Brigadier General Kazimierz Sikorski (at right), Military Attaché at the Embassy of Poland. Dombrowski was recognized for fostering and growing fraternal relations between Poland and America by preserving and promoting their shared military traditions and history. (Click on photo for source of photo and caption.)

The Harford County Council honors Raymond and Esther Dombrowski by proclaiming them Harford Living Treasures. Esther is holding the Proclamation and Ray is next to her on the left. Photo by Leo Heppner.

The Harford County Council honored Raymond and Esther Dombrowski by proclaiming them Harford Living Treasures on April 2, 2002. Esther is holding the Proclamation and Ray is next to her on the left. Photo by Leo Heppner.

Today, March 8, the Bel Air Community Band will play a concert to raise money for the Raymond J. Dombrowski Scholarship Fund at 3 pm at the C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, Maryland. Admission is free and donations will be accepted.

The Bel Air Community Band is one of the largest and best community bands in the U.S., thanks in no small part to Mr. Dombrowski, who was my high school band director. The BACB is filled with many of his former students and is directed by C. Scott Sharnetzka, who began his career as a music teacher at Bel Air High School in 1972 and credits the mentoring and support he received from Mr. Dombrowski as the foundation of his own successful career as a band director.

You might expect that a high school band director who taught from 1953 to 1985 would be a faded memory, but one of Mr. D’s former students is Phyllis Fowler, a woman possessed of amazing organizing powers and energy, to say nothing of her great intelligence and vast heart, who thought it would be a great idea to have a reunion of Bel Air High School band alumni in 2003 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Mr. D’s coming to teach band at Bel Air High School. I’m pretty sure she had this idea while she was still in high school.

Well, Phyllis applied her mad skillz starting in 2001 and in August 2003 about 100 of us gathered from over 20 states and played a concert at C. Milton Wright High School. It was a freakin’ blast! Phyllis organized a bassoon for me — it’s the most expensive instrument in a concert band and I’d sold my Puchner in college — and I managed to get some decent reeds and started playing again just three days before the concert. (The alumna who played principal first bassoon is a professional bassoonist and the principal second was a music teacher, so bassoon-wise, we were covered.)

The 2003 reunion was so much fun that we had another one in 2006. We were preparing for one in 2008 when Mr. Dombrowski’s pancreatic cancer recurred. He died on August 25, 2008, and is survived by his wife, Esther.

Mr. Dombrowski helped to plan today’s program and it includes three of his own compositions, the Bel Air Bobcat fight song, Hooray for Bobcats, the marching band drum cadence, and Wendellwood Drive, a rock-and-roll piece for concert band. The sound file for the drum cadence and Hooray for Bobcats is at the end of this post along with whatever I can find on YouTube for Meditations from Thaïs, which we will play today because Mr. D’s primary instrument was the violin and it was one of his favorites.

I wrote the following appreciation of Mr. Dombrowski on 9/1/08 and submitted it to National Public Radio, which rejected it and I’m going to say that was because it is well outside their word limit. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

An appreciation of Raymond J. Dombrowski

Of all the subjects you take in high school, the only ones where you are likely to be working with the same teacher all four years are band and orchestra. Because you put your heart into playing a musical instrument maybe a little more than you might into calculating the area of a polygon, your band teacher can make you or break you more than any other. During my high school years of 1967 to 1971, I was one of the lucky ones. I played the bassoon and had Raymond J. Dombrowski for band. With affection, we called him Mr. D.

Born to Polish immigrant parents in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and raised in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Ray Dombrowski took to the violin and piano at age four and began to play the clarinet and saxophone in high school so he could play in dance bands to earn money. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1951, then enlisted in the Army where he played in the 2nd Army Band at Fort Meade, Maryland. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1953 and landed the job of music teacher at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Maryland.

Among Mr. Dombrowski’s fellow teachers was a young woman from a local family, the school librarian, Esther Everitt, whom he quickly recognized as the love of his life. They married in 1956. While Mr. D led the Bel Air Bobcats marching band, Mrs. D led what has come to be known as the band front. In the 1950s and 60s the band front was comprised of girls carrying the band’s banner and majorettes twirling batons, but by the 1970s band fronts expanded to include performers doing routines with flags and pompons, so between the two of them they were coordinating pre-game, half-time and parade performances of almost 200 teenagers.

Mrs. D retired in 1984. Mr. D retired in 1985 after leading the band, orchestra and jazz band at Bel Air High School for 32 years. Among the students who graduated after me is a flute player named Phyllis Bollinger, now Phyllis Fowler. Phyllis continued to play the flute after graduation and has been the principal flutist of the Bel Air Community Band for many years. She had the idea for organizing a reunion band to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Mr. Dombrowski’s first year as a music teacher even before he retired and kept in touch with the Dombrowskis after graduating. Being a brilliant and determined organizer, using the Internet, old yearbooks and all her wiles, starting in January 2002, Phyllis contacted everyone who had ever had band with Mr. Dombrowski to get together for a weekend in August 2003 for a Bel Air High School Reunion Band to be led by Mr. Dombrowski one more time. With our love for Mr. Dombrowski, this was an easy sell. We wound up with 100 band members from 26 states and ranging in age from 35 to 65. So many of Mr. D’s former students wanted to take part and play for him again that we had a reunion jazz band and string ensemble as well.

I badly wanted to join, but I’d sold my bassoon in college and did not have money for another one. Not to worry, Phyllis organized a bassoon for me. So, in August of 2003, I found myself playing bassoon again in a band room full of Bel Air High alumni with Mr. Dombrowski on the podium. I have to tell you, I was not the only person in the room who had just started to play again to honor Mr. D and celebrate all he taught us and thank him. Thus it was that we began to play and soon seriously messed up. Mr. D tapped his baton for silence. You could have heard a mallet drop. I swear, each and every one of us in that room was 16 again and blushing with remorse that we had disappointed Mr. D. But, being a kind and brilliant teacher, Mr. D quickly figured out how to break the difficult passage up and rehearsed us through it.

So we had a blast and rocked our 2003 reunion concert. However, there was a big fly in our ointment. Mrs. D could not attend the concert and banquet because she was hospitalized with a virus. Plus, we didn’t get to play the pieces written by Mr. D that I had looked forward to playing the most – our drum cadence and fight song, Hooray for Bobcats. The music for them had been lost, so Mr. D asked another composer to arrange the tune for us. We played the new version, and it had a stateliness suited for us as adults in a concert hall, but we missed the one that brought bleachers full of people to their feet to sing and cheer on our Bobcats at football games.

Well, Phyllis organized another reunion band for August 2006 and we were joyful that this time Mrs. D was in good health. At one of the rehearsals Mr. D was very dapper in a white tuxedo because he had come straight from playing a wedding with his band. But after we played the new arrangement of Hooray for Bobcats, he looked pensive and I couldn’t resist piping up to ask him why we couldn’t play the real cadence and fight song. He replied, “The music has been lost.” Then, with one voice, almost everyone in the band answered, “No problem! We remember it!” And immediately the percussion section launched into the cadence, which is what a marching band’s percussion section plays during parades to keep the band in step in-between playing marches. When they finished, to Mr. D’s obvious astonishment and delight, from memory we played his original Hooray for Bobcats.

The last time I saw Mr. Dombrowski was on Memorial Day this year (2008) when he and Mrs. D came to hear the speeches, see the ceremony of the laying of the wreaths in honor of members of the armed services and hear the Bel Air Community Band play in honor of the occasion. After the reunion band in 2003, Phyllis had recruited me to the community band, which is one of the largest and best in the U.S., so we were both there and spotted Ray and Esther before the concert and went flying off the band shell stage to greet them and hug them. Perhaps that mild sparkling day on the grass in front of a small town band shell best epitomized Mr. Dombrowski’s life – he was there with Esther, the love of his life, his wife of 52 years and partner in all his achievements; he was among the veterans being honored; and he was watching the performance of the community band that not only was filled with musicians he had trained but also led by a man who cheerfully credits being mentored by Mr. D in his first teaching job as being the foundation of his own successful career as a much-loved Harford county music teacher, Scott Sharnetzska.

Mr. Dombrowski died on Monday, August 25, 2008, at the age of 79 of pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed not long after our 2006 reunion. He did so well in 2007 that at the beginning of 2008, Phyllis began to recruit us for another reunion and had a sizable group before Mr. D found that his cancer was no longer in remission.

Because Mr. Dombrowski was so modest and gracious about all his talents and accomplishments, and always ready for others to flourish in his presence, which in my book is the very definition of majesty of soul, until I came to Mr. Dombrowski’s viewing and saw him in his casket adorned with medals and surrounded by large certificates honoring him, I had no idea about his work on behalf of veterans and Polish culture. In addition to serving on the Harford County Veterans Commission and Maryland Veterans Commission, he founded the Baltimore chapter of the Polish Legion of American Veterans. Mr. D’s brother, Andy, told me his gold medal was awarded by the Polish Army in recognition of Mr. D’s work in making Americans aware of the struggle of the Polish people for freedom, and that Mr. D was the only person in the U.S. to be awarded this medal at the gold level. Mr. Dombrowski’s other medal was the Knight Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, which was awarded by the Polish government in recognition of his involvement and achievements in cultural projects in the Polish-American community.

The night before Mr. Dombrowski’s funeral, Mrs. D told Phyllis that she would love for the reunion band to get together again. In minutes, Phyllis had lined up Scott Sharnetzka to conduct and snagged a slot in next year’s Bel Air Summer Concert Series for August 2 for us to perform under our new name, the Raymond J. Dombrowski Memorial Reunion Band. I plan to be there in the bassoon section. Mr. Dombrowski composed many pieces of music throughout his career, and I expect we’ll play several of them to celebrate his life, but I believe the two we’ll play that will most invoke his spirit in our hearts are the ones that, without fail, make us all feel 16 again, sitting in the bleachers of the football field on a chilly Friday night, bringing the crowd to its feet to cheer and sing while we play our marching cadence and fight song, Hooray for Bobcats:

hoorayforbobcatsgoodquality-aug-30-2008-065700

Lyrics by Raymond J. Dombrowski:

Hooray for Bobcats! Hooray for Bobcats!
Someone’s in the grandstands yelling, ‘Hooray for Bobcats!’
One, two, three, four, who you gonna yell for?
Bobcats! Hooray! Rah! Rah! Rah!

Hooray for Bobcats! Hooray for Bobcats!
Someone’s in the grandstands yelling, ‘Hooray for Bobcats!’
One, two, three, four, who you gonna yell for?
Bobcats! Hooray! Rah! Rah! Rah!

Hooray for Bobcats! Hooray for Bobcats!
Someone’s in the grandstands yelling, ‘Hooray for Bobcats!’
One, two, three, four, who you gonna yell for?
Bobcats! Hooray!

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