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Muskegon Big Red Band
and the evolution of a music program

While William Stewart was not Muskegon High School's first band director, he was, without question, the director who established the school's reputation as one of the finest prep bands in the nation.  Nearly 50 years after his death, his influences still permeate music programs throughout the West Michigan area.

William Stewart, a native of Howell, Michigan, earned his Bachelors Degree at Ypsilanti Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) in 1934, and taught instrumental music in the public schools of Eaton Rapids from 1934 to 1936. As a young teacher, and accomplished clarinetist, he added to his skills  by playing in the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. Marius Fossenkemper, first clarinetist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, had been his teacher for four years, and profoundly influenced his musicianship in general and his dedication to a beautiful basic tone quality in particular.


William Stewart began his work in Muskegon in 1936. He earned a Masters Degree from Northwestern University during the summers of 1938-41, during which time Glenn Cliff Bainum (band director) and Domenico De Caprio (clarinet instructor) became important influences on his musicianship. His success with the instrumental ensembles of Muskegon High School was immediate and profound. He may be the only public school music teacher in the country ever to have developed a nationally  recognized marching band, a nationally recognized concert band and a nationally recognized concert orchestra, and to have personally directed all three and kept all three performing at the outstanding caliber of the Muskegon groups for more than two decades.

 The Muskegon High School Marching Band under the direction of Stewart performed a completely different and wonderfully creative half time show for every home football game played in Hackley Stadium for 24 years. Special effects included the invention of hat lights and footlights (patented in the name of the Muskegon Band), black lighting, unbelievably beautiful and elaborate props, innovative involvement of the crowd, fireworks, and a grand piano on the field for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. When Stewart's marching band visited other schools, their coming was usually considered a phenomenon to behold. In 1949 a Royal Oak paper announced, "Muskegon is bringing its nationally famous 120 piece marching band." An out-of-town visitor to a Muskegon football game wrote to the Muskegon Chronicle: "Then there was the band! We love football, but brother, what a band! School bands are so generally school bands; but the Muskegon High Band is in a spectacular class by itself.


The Muskegon Concert Band won superior ratings in district and state contests annually. They were invited to perform several times at the Midwest National Band Clinic in Chicago, and in 1957 the national publication First Chair of America featured the members of the Muskegon Band and dedicated the issue to them. Typical of the Chronicle reviews the day after a Muskegon High Band concert are these words from 1952: "It was a packed auditorium of enthusiastic fans, and the band played. ..as near a perfect performance as can be expected of high school musicians."


Merle Evans, famed director of the Barnum and Bailey Band (the "Toscanini of the Big Top"), described Stewart's Muskegon Band as "the finest high school band I have heard in forty years of traveling across the country." William D. Revelli, Director of Bands at the University of Michigan, described the Muskegon concert Band as: ". ..superbly taught and conducted; a great credit to its community, state, and nation! I wish you could take the band on a national tour. It would do much for our band programs in the high schools of the nation."


William Stewart built the Muskegon High School Orchestra on the model of the great professional symphonies of our country. In 1952, two years after the Muskegon High School Band had been featured at the Midwest National Band Clinic, the organizers of the clinic invited (for the first time) a high school orchestra to perform. That orchestra was William Stewart's Muskegon Orchestra, which was awarded a plaque for excellence at the clinic. Wayne Dunlap, as Orchestra Conductor at the University of Michigan, wrote that the Muskegon High School Orchestra' , ...plays with such style, authority and precision ...you put many college orchestras to shame." Romeo Tata, Conductor of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, said of a particular performance by the Muskegon High School Orchestra, "I never heard the Grieg played better by any orchestra."


William Stewart organized the Band and Orchestra Parents Association (in 1936 it was the "Band Mothers" - and the members of the band were the "Band Boys") to help with the great amount of supportive work that was needed, and he had a staff of hard working, dedicated teachers at his side. Still, to quote a colleague of the time, , 'he burned up energy as if there were no tomorrow." In the process he served the community in every way conceivable. He did everything humanly possible to include large numbers of students in the band (e.g. rewriting parts for the less capable members), he served very consciously as a role model for students, and he inspired all those around him. His two compositions, "Red and White" (originally "Men in Red and White") and "Muskegon High School Alma Mater", are two wonderful pieces of music that have become an important part of Muskegon High School heritage.

Thoughts about William Stewart
from a 1960 Graduate


Darrel Walters, Ph.D.

William Stewart Biographer

Professor, Temple University’s

Boyer College of Music

June 18, 2008


Where does time go?  William Stewart’s death is now 48 years in the past.  My biography of him is 38 years in the past.  And yet, as I think of him now I realize that my perspective tends to be frozen in time.  I’m eighteen years older than he was at the time he died, and yet I think of him as mature, wise, and in charge.   He was a force to be reckoned with—a force that would tear down a brick wall to achieve a goal.  People like William Stewart never recede with time.


If anything, they grow larger. I said most of what I have to say about William Stewart in my 1980 biography, but I might add a few thoughts that have come to me since.  As I pursue my own work, I realize ever more how passionately driven the man was.  He carried sounds in his head—sounds of a warm, lovely, musical symphonic wind band and symphony orchestra—and he was determined that the high school students in his charge would produce those sounds.


In retrospect, I think the reasons for his determination were many.  He was determined to satisfy his own high musical standards, as if his high school ensembles were instruments upon which he played.  He was determined to show doubters what high school musicians could do, as when he programmed Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem excerpts for the state festival after being told by colleagues that it was unplayable by a high school band.  He was determined to give to all the students he taught a supreme musical experience through which they would learn to discriminate between the musical and the unmusical.  He was determined that we would carry away from our experience with him something to enrich our lives.  And he was determined to lay a foundation for instrumental music at Muskegon High School that would live after him, and on which subsequent programs could be built.


So now hundreds of us do live enriched lives rooted in the work of this driven man.  And we realize that for all his admirable virtues, he suffered a serious shortcoming.  Unwisely, he left his own health unchecked as he spent sleepless nights re-writing parts, charting marching band formations, and organizing band and orchestra trips.  While he was teaching us to have our equipment ready and in good working order at all times, to wear our uniforms neatly and with pride, to behave well in public, and to play like professional musicians, he appears to have been leaving his own physical welfare too much to chance.


So in 1960 we heard the shocking news that William Stewart had died of a heart attack while driving his car.  And now, in 2008, we remember that long-ago death in a way that we remember few others.  He left a mark.  A piece of him lives for as long as we live.  We have a dimension to our lives that we cannot imagine being without—a dimension that would be missing if not for William Stewart’s dedication and sacrifice on our behalf.  For that we must be eternally grateful.

William Stewart's mode of operation was damaging to his health, and undoubtedly contributed to his death on December 22, 1960, at the age of 48. His wife, Ruth, and his sons, Michael and Martin, were joined in their grief by teaching colleagues, students, ex-students, the community of Muskegon, and music educators across the state and nation. William Stewart will not be forgotten by those who knew and loved him, nor by those of subsequent generations who have benefited, and who continue to benefit, by the masterful piece of work that he did during his twenty four years at Muskegon High School.


  Biographer - Darrel Walters
Muskegon High School Alumni page