Marching On

How a teacher and band instructor reunited a community

On a spectacular day in June, sixty volunteer members of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band marched into McFarland’s Lewis Park as some two thousand onlookers sang, danced and raised their glasses in a symbolic, collective toast.

The day before, nearly three thousand people had filled McFarland High School’s halls, some waiting three hours, while at the end of the line in the crowded gymnasium, UW’s iconic conductor Mike Leckrone led a spontaneous mini concert performed by 172 current and former high school band members.

Actor and singer Tom Wopat dropped everything to come from New York for the ceremonies. “I wouldn’t have missed it,” he says.

The crowds had gathered just a week before a divisive and angry recall election that split McFarland’s neighborhoods and families over government workers and their right to organize. Yet the gathering drew everyone: union members sporting their “Recall Walker’’ buttons, local and highly vocal Tea Party supporters, bankers and business leaders, veterans, school administrators and students. With emotions running as high as anyone can remember, McFarland had a political out-of-body-experience as the community joined together to celebrate.

But it wasn’t a party. It was a funeral. For a local public school teacher.

All told, nearly four thousand people honored the life of Bill Garvey, who for thirty-one years taught instrumental music and marching band to students from the sixth grade through graduation at McFarland High School. Garvey had also volunteered as a UW Marching Band field director for more than three decades; he volunteered to direct the McFarland community band. He was a union “thug,” elected five times as his school union representative; he was a tireless supporter of school sports and other extra-curriculars as vehicles to help teachers reach students outside the classroom. And he used his music and his bands to assist veterans’ groups and support events at his Christ the King Catholic Church.

He never stopped teaching or reaching out, his friends and fellow teachers say. As a result, Garvey had touched a lot of lives. And during the course of those remarkable two days, it seemed that just about everyone he touched returned to honor him.

“I will never forget the impact he had on my life,” reflects former student Matthew Whiting. “I wasn’t a good student. I tried to quit band every week. But Bill wouldn’t let me. When I complained to my dad, he basically said, ‘If Bill Garvey says you can’t quit, then you’re not quitting. I trust Bill Garvey.’”

Whiting graduated to become a member of the UW Marching Band and is now himself a UW field assistant. “He found a way to find the diamond in the rough of everyone—and work with it to help them develop,” says Whiting, a Fed Ex ramp agent in Madison. “That’s what he did with me. He changed my life. He changed a lot of lives. And a lot of those former students were at the funeral. They came from all over the country.”

But the memorial last spring was more than a tribute to a great man. It was also a timely, communal recognition of the value of a good teacher. Statewide, school districts are struggling to measure, evaluate and develop good teachers. They struggle because it’s hard to measure—and then develop—the qualities that made Garvey effective.

“I would defy any statistician to measure what makes a good teacher,” says Garvey’s longtime boss, principal Jim Hickey. “Great teachers like Bill have an enormous impact on students and on our community … We can do all of the student testing we want—and all the teacher evaluations we want. But the intangibles that excellent teachers offer are immeasurable, yet they’re very, very real. Ask anyone in that crowd. That’s why they’re all here.”

And they all had something to say.

“I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like it in my life,” says longtime colleague and friend Leckrone. “You think about the students you have in front of you. You don’t think about all the lives you may have touched. It was very emotional.

“I’m also one of those people who thinks our public education system is pretty darned good. What you also saw at Bill’s funeral was a community committed to its schools—and a school system committed to the arts. To me, it was quite a revelation.”

“He didn’t teach kids. He inspired them,” says Wopat, the Broadway actor who was a Dukes of Hazzard TV star and Garvey’s college roommate and close friend. “He was passionate about everything he did. He worked very hard to reach every student.”

“Bill was using the band to help students fit in who felt they didn’t quite belong,” says McFarland associate principal Sherry Holly. “Students don’t all learn the same way. He used music to help them get excited about learning.  He helped a lot of kids succeed who might otherwise not have even tried.’’

“Bill would get to know kids personally, work with each of them, go to their sporting events and root for them, yell at them, hug them, call their parents at home. Whatever worked,” says his widow, Michelle Garvey, a sixth-grade math teacher at Indian Mounds Middle School in McFarland.

Garvey’s wake extended nearly ten hours as mourners crowded the high school’s halls for the chance to hug and console Michelle and their children, Andrew and Jessica. The crowd sobbed openly when Wopat performed “The Lord’s Prayer’’ at the packed funeral Mass, which had to be moved to Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Monona to accommodate the crowd.

They laughed and danced when the UW Marching Band members and alums marched into Lewis Park, sousaphones swinging and umphing in unison. The “fifth quarter’’ funeral reception itself was a community event, organized by the schools’ teachers, custodians and secretaries who worked with dozens of local businesses that donated tents, a thousand hamburgers and hotdogs, equipment and ten half-barrels of beer. (Over the beer was a sign to Garvey’s current students: “No drinking. Mr. Garvey is watching!”)

“Bill and I did not agree on politics, but that was okay,” says David Doll, a self-described conservative activist. “I was going through a tough time as my employer was downsizing. Bill Garvey encouraged me to join the community band. I hadn’t played the trumpet since high school, but he gave me exercises to strengthen my lip and encouraged me to stay. I never forgot that time in my life. I’m proud I got the chance to meet Bill Garvey. He was the perfect citizen. That’s why everyone of every socioeconomic and political group is here today.”

And the impact of Garvey’s funeral won’t soon be forgotten in this small community of 7,900 residents.

“What did I learn from all of this?” asks Michelle Garvey. “I saw firsthand how much difference a teacher can make on students and our town—and that people do value teachers. Despite people’s politics, the whole town came together. I’m still blown away.”

Michael Flaherty lives in McFarland, teaches journalism at UW–Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and is president of a communications firm, Flaherty & Associates. 

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