Teacher Feature (Pt. 4 of 4): Dr. William P. Foster [Teacher Appreciation Week]

And here we are, Day 4 of my Teacher Appreciation Week blog series. I’d like to close this out at the collegiate level and thank you all for reading and commenting on the previous entries throughout the week for Stuart Gurevitz (4th grade Science), Myra Anderson (10th grade Spanish) and Larry Lane (9th-12 grade band).

My final entry emanates from down south in an area known as “the highest of seven hills”.

August 10, 1985 Tallahassee, Florida; Florida A&M University

I sat in the university band practice room amidst the other 100-something odd incoming freshmen (all hoping to “be in that number”). Sitting among us were our section leaders, assistant section leaders, drum majors and other volunteers who agreed to return two weeks before the Fall academic session had begun.

It was called pre-drill and the only students on campus were the members of the football team and the band, both conditioning the newbies, while prepping them for football season.

When I got the flier from the university’s music department, I had no idea that the phrase, “you will eat, sleep and practice” was to be taken literally. And I mean literally!

That’s me – last white shirt on the left.

When I tell you that that’s all we did for the first two weeks, I am not exaggerating.  But that’s what was expected of you to become a part of what was (and still is, in my opinion) one of the greatest marching bands ever assembled.  That was Dr. Foster’s dream when he created this band with back in 1946. This small unit that would soon be known world-wide as The Florida A&M University “Marching 100” Band.

And here I was, in the presence of greatness, in line of site of a living legend.  Dr. William Patrick Foster aka “The Maestro” aka “The Law”!

Dr. William Patrick Foster

I have to be careful and not make this a documentary about his life, especially considering that there have been so many of those written and aired over the years.  But know that his accomplishments were and are still unparalleled. 

His Marching Band had appeared on 60 Minutes, 20/20, a Welch’s Grape commercial, Disney’s Anniversary Special and multiple Superbowl halftime shows, later including the epic performance with Prince in 2007.

And the list goes on and on…

That’s why I auditioned.  That’s why I applied at the university.  That’s why I spent countless hours jogging and practicing my music the summer after high school graduation. 

I wanted to be “in that number”.

When Dr. Foster eventually took the podium to speak, standing strong at 65 years of age, welcoming the returning upperclassmen and hopeful freshmen, I sat in awe with my mouth and eyes wide open.  I tried unsuccessfully not to appear starstruck as the surrounding musicians listened in agreement to his messages, plans and encouragement with their responses of “Hubba Doc”.

He expected excellence.  He commanded excellence.  It was what he required in order to maintain our reputation of the well-deserved title, “The Most Televised Band In America” (in the WORLD, for that matter).

After the initial meeting, I approached him, nervously shaking his extended hand, introducing myself. 

“Yessss, Kenneth,” he replied warmly.  I’m looking forward to seeing you out there… …at your very best.

I didn’t know if he had recognized my name or was just being cordial.  But I DID know that he wanted me to be ready and, at my very best.

After two weeks of the most grueling physical conditioning I’d ever imagined possible, I was pleased to know that I had earned a spot on the field after the traditional “shaking of the tree” (tryouts).  I didn’t take that for granted at all, even though several freshman had quit during those first 14 days alone, leaving less competition in their wake.

And it wasn’t long before I learned the meaning behind another one of his classic mottos: “Practice does NOT make perfect.  PERFECT practice makes perfect!”

Between Assistant Band Director Dr. Julian White, the band staff, the drum major, the section and assistant section leaders, rank sergeants and returning upper classmen (after pre-drill), I was KEPT on my toes.

But you had to be there to experience it. 

Any time a new song was introduced for an upcoming show, Dr. White put us through it as if it was all that stood between Heaven and eternal damnation.  More often than not, we had the entire song memorized before we left the initial indoor session.  But that was far from the end. 

Once we had it down to a science, Dr. Foster would take the podium.  And with the elegance and experience of a master painter, “Doc” put his brush strokes to it, conducting with his “Deet, De DEEEEEE”, expressing how each line, each measure, each note, should sound.  Even our breathing was carved out to fit the mold with precision.

Yes, I was in the presence of greatness.

I could only imagine what it was like, watching him in his younger years, particularly during his band’s inception. Or by his side, during their decades-long evolution. Or even at some of their memorable performances of the 70s like the Star Wars show… …but I digress.

What I DID experience during my freshman year was our historic 1985 homecoming halftime awards presentation. We were the recipients of The Sudler Award for excellence, acknowledging us as the #1 band in the nation. At the time, we were only the 4th band in history to receive it and the first HBCU (Historically Black Colleges And Universities). You could call it the Heisman Trophy for marching bands.

Of course, by the time my sophomore year arrived, it wasn’t long before I was back to my old, devilish ways (if you’ve read my previous installments, you know what I was capable of).  But like my high school band director Mr. Lane warned in my previous Teacher Feature tribute, this was a different arena, thus my antics might find themselves short-lived.

His words proved prophetic.

There we were, on “The Patch”, our practice field, taking a (very short) break in block band formation.  I was entertaining both the upper classmen and new freshmen when everyone suddenly stopped smiling. I turned around only to find “The Law” rapidly approaching me.

“Kenneth,” he said softly but firmly upon reaching me.  “Son, you need to calm down.  You’re just too hyper.”

“You remember my NAME?” I asked in shock, still reeling from the fact that he had actually descended from the watch tower above to talk to me.

“This is MY band.  I make it my business to know everything… …and everyone.”

And just like that, he walked away, but I swear I never saw his feet move.  It was if he was gliding like a hovercraft.

If you think my respect level for him was high before, you should have seen it from that point on!

Jumping to the split.

Over the next three years, although I was still my crazy self, making my own name, I always knew where the line was and acted accordingly.  And I never crossed it.  Because as he said, this was still his band.  And in it, you can be whoever you want, but perfection in performance had better be the end result.  Because it was his creation, his baby and his legacy.

Gettin’ low in the sax section at halftime.

Throughout my time on the yard, I enjoyed many mini talks with him (because his time and presence were always in high demand).  And during those moments, he always gave me encouragement and guidance as to how I should channel my energy for my own betterment.

In fact, I’ll never forget one of the greatest things he told me after spotting me jogging outside of the dorms in Paris, France.  (Yes, his band had been selected to represent the United States back in 1989 during their 200th Bastille Day celebration.)

“I saw you jogging this morning, Kenneth.” It was at 5 a.m.
“I didn’t know you were looking out of the window!” I laughed.
“This is my band, son.  Don’t forget.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You have great fire in you. But remember that if you want to go far in life, if you want to be a success…     …you must use that fire to forge steel.  Not to burn your own house down.”

…from that day on, I lived my life with purpose.  It was “The Law”.

A small portion of the band, performing on the Seine River before the big parade. I was in the unit playing at the Eiffel Tower.
Me at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France 1989

Dr. Foster is gone from us now.  His brilliant baton finally stopped conducting the magic that is life and music at age 91 on August 28, 2010. 

Dr. William P. Foster, The Law 1989

And if you haven’t figured it out by now, he is the only teacher that I can’t give flowers to while he’s still alive.  I broke my own rule about honoring those that are still with us – because he deserved it, this posthumous dedication. You see, me thanking him before my wife, newborn son and I relocated to Georgia was not enough. 

It will never be enough.

I circled myself in this picture back in college. Wish I hadn’t now.

I sing his praise because Dr. Foster, like my father, mother, Aunt Dee, Cousin John, and all of those many instructors like Stuart Gurevitz, Myra Anderson and Larry Lane, all had a part in how I reconstructed my life goals. 

He, like all the others, gave me purpose. 

He, like all the others, is me…

…they always will be.

Thank you, Dr. Foster.  I love and miss you.

And thank you all, who have taken the time to read, forward/share and comment on my tributes over the past four days. It’s been an arduous, yet enjoyable effort, extracting the files from my memory shelves to share my experiences with you. As I said before, each and every educator mentioned were huge influences in life, as well as countless others. That is why I honor them. That is why WE honor them. That is why we remember them.

Teacher Appreciation Week is more than a week, more than a month or year. It is a lifetime.

God bless every single one of them. And God bless you.


Photo credits: Victor Gaines, Joe Brown and others unknown.

Like what you read? Have a memory that you’d like to share about Dr. Foster or another instructor? Leave a comment in the section below! And be sure to sign up at the bottom to receive email notification of future posts from Kenny’s Camera, Cooking & Crazy Confessions at ZootsBlogSpot!

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