News Column

Putting Kids on the Streets

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It begins with a faint touch of sound, as if creeping over the horizon.

Thump, thump, thump.

Then a hint of trumpets, trombones, flutes and saxophones begins to join the cadence. Maybe you're sitting on your porch on a lazy summer day and the crescendo builds until streams of young musicians march in front of your home, filling the Pueblo air with music.

If you've lived here long, you've probably experienced it.

And the experience gained by the teenagers who put on the show is invaluable.

When it recently wrapped up another season of marching and playing music, the Sun City Marching Band celebrated 30 years of putting Pueblo kids on the streets and entertaining the county. It's become an institution for middle school-aged musicians to hone their craft in a different way during the summer months.

"Sun City . . . I just smile when I say that," current director Mark Emery said. "It's so much fun. The kids have fun, they're smiling and I'm smiling.

It's just a good time."

Emery, the retired director of the wildly successful Pueblo County High School marching band, has wielded the Sun City baton for the last 18 years. But it was 31 years ago when a triumvirate of band directors collaborated to establish the group.

Mike DeLuca, Galen Feeback and Rick Hatfield were all music instructors with Pueblo School District 60 in 1981 and each brought their own ingredients of ideas of what would become Sun City.

DeLuca, who was the band director at Freed Middle School, said that when he began teaching in the 1970s, there was a movement toward marching bands within the school curriculum. After some off-key experiences, he was firmly convinced that marching would be better served in the summer.

His bands would practice in the limited time available, try to prepare for a performance and something would happen -- like getting rained out -- preventing the kids from feeling the satisfaction of their hard work.

"I said I'm not going to do this any more," DeLuca said. "This could easily work as a summer activity."

Feeback, then the music director at Risley, began brainstorming with DeLuca about how they could establish a summer marching band for middle school kids, similar to what Pride City had been doing for high school students since 1959.

"It took us a whole year to get this thing going," Feeback said. "The three of us got together and started preparing for how we're going to make it happen."

Hatfield, who was teaching music at four elementary schools, joined the mix and the trio began navigating the waters of school administration and the Pueblo Parks and Recreation Department to start up the group.

"Mike and I met in Pride City and grew up with that heritage. I talked with Mike about establishing a group like that," Hatfield said.

"I'm proud of the fact that Mike, Galen and I came up with the idea and made it happen. I'm proud of us, I'm proud of the kids."

DeLuca said they visited all the schools and sent a letter to every student, not just band kids, about Sun City. In July of 1982, about 125 kids came out for the first rendition of the band.

Any student entering seventh or eighth grades was eligible to participate.

They would meet in the evening at City Park and practice until the sun was going down -- or until it was completely dark. A strong parent group, with representatives from each school, provided an invaluable support system for the three directors as Sun City quickly became a fixture on the summer parade circuit.

It was certainly a grassroots effort, as the group did not receive any funding from the schools or the city. Fundraisers were held, the kids paid a fee and the directors did not initially accept any pay because, as Feeback said, "We wanted to make sure the organization would fly."

And fly it did. Sun City performed regularly in Rocky Ford's Melon Day Parade, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Parade in Colorado Springs, another in Longmont and, of course, the three big parades associated with the Colorado State Fair -- the namesake parade, Fiesta Day Parade and Kids Day Parade.

It was a whirlwind, as the group ran for four weeks each summer.

Drummers reported two weeks earlier to ensure the proper beat would be dropped every night.

There were plenty of interesting experiences along the way. Some of the parents formed a "suicide squad," driving in front of and behind the group to provide light and protection as it marched the city streets. Encounters with inconvenienced motorists could be a bit testy.

"In one instance while performing in the rodeo arena at the Fair, it was so muddy kids were losing their shoes," DeLuca said.

Then there's the benefits.

"One reason this program was successful was it kept kids playing in the summertime. Those kids would come back to school ready to play," Feeback said. "Their lips were in shape and they were ready. Some of those kids went on to become outstanding musicians, professionals and teachers."

DeLuca noted that many of Sun City's musicians were well-rounded kids.

Many participated in sports and other activities, which is one reason the band practiced at night.

"To sample some of the pride we experienced, during all-city tryouts for the middle schools, those were the same kids who were in Sun City," DeLuca said.

Hatfield said that simply witnessing the kids undertake a challenge, work at it, and follow through to the end was its own reward.

"It's always challenging to get kids to understand what you're asking of them," Hatfield said. "One of my fondest memories is kids did grasp on to it so quickly and ran with it.

They were just amazing."

Under DeLuca, Feeback and Hatfield, Sun City flourished during the 1980s. By 1988, the trio's final year together, the band had 238 kids. With staff, including volunteer section coaches, the total number exceeded 250.

But other callings meant the founding directors needed to go their own way. DeLuca was directing the orchestra for the summer musical and Feeback wanted to focus on personal matters, so they turned over their successful venture.

Members of the trumpet section of the 80-plus strong Sun City Marching Band play as they march in the Colorado State Fair Parade down Union Avenue last August.

"One of the most rewarding things was just the band being successful, being kind of a brain child of mine, and seeing it grow," DeLuca said. "We made so many friends, especially with the families of the kids."

Feeback has been retired for 15 years after teaching band for 32 years.

He still has a hand in music, working part time at Marck Time Music.

After a long tenure at Freed, DeLuca worked in administration at District 60 and now teaches music theory at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

Hatfield is retired in Denver, but still plays euphonium with the Rocky Mountain Brass Works.

Chuck Silloway came along to succeed the trio as Sun City's director in 1989, along with Todd Seip.

They quickly realized the size of the shoes they were stepping into.

"It was hard. Taking over for Mike, Galen and Rick, they just had it down. It was a machine at that point," said Silloway, who now teaches music at Mountain Ridge Middle

School in Colorado Springs. "It was quite an intense summer, more than I expected. I was a young teacher, and maybe not quite ready, but it was a great experience as far as the things I learned.

"I couldn't be more proud to be a part of that team. Mike is an amazing teacher and it was a great team of people who worked hard to make it a great experience for kids.

And they always performed at a very high level."

Others held the reigns for Sun City until Emery came along in 1994. He had been asked to be Pride City's director but liked the idea of working with younger students.

He was certainly a good man for the job. While teaching at Pueblo County for 30 years before retiring last year, his marching bands won six state championships, including the 2011 title.

"We just have lots of fun and at the same time keep high standards and discipline and performance," Emery said. "It's possible to have fun and get great performance from kids.

"It gets them to commit to something, working together in the pursuit of a common goal. All these things make them better people and better prepared for their futures."

Emery changed the practice venue to Mineral Palace Park and the group now gathers in the mornings. Incoming ninth graders also are eligible to participate since Pride City folded.

The performance itinerary is similar, but Sun City now also goes to the Douglas County Fair Parade in Castle Rock and the Western Welcome Week Parade, "a huge parade in Littleton that probably 100,000 people watch."

And on every trip, Emery ensures they do something special, like going to Elitch Gardens or the Park Meadows Mall.

With all of the other activities (some would say distractions) at the disposal of kids today, music participation numbers aren't what they used to be. Emery also laments the schools' decision to eliminate fifth grade band.

But hope is strong that just as Sun City has served thousands of Pueblo's youth through the years, it will continue to do so for another 30 years and beyond.

"It's a definite relationship between the schools and Sun City. The local middle school bands are starting to recover from the decision to eliminate fifth grade band and from a little instability in the middle school bands," Emery said. "If band becomes the cool thing to do, we'll flourish. Like at County, the kids loved what we did. "My goal is to be over 100 next year and I can really say that as I watch the school programs grow, that portends well for Sun City band as well."

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