Retiring the baton

Saturday, August 7, 2010

By Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
Published in the Lodi News-Sentinel on August 7, 2010

Bob Gross and the Lodi Community Band pause during a rehearsal for their August 9, 2010, concert.

Though he’s already eaten breakfast, Bob Gross still chews on his words carefully before speaking, and there’s something refreshing about a man who can get a point across in a few well-planned phrases. The 67-year-old is soft-spoken, but his voice isn’t lost in the din of the coffee shop. On the contrary, Gross has a manner of punctuating his short sentences that makes you stop and pay attention.

Gross has directed the Lodi Community Band for the past five years, and his subdued mannerisms don’t disappear once he picks up the baton. The conductor doesn’t have to command respect with the use of a loud voice or animated gestures — the immediate attentiveness of his band members makes it clear that respect is willingly, and readily, given.

The musician is well-worn around the edges, with white hair and laugh lines. He seems comfortable with his lot in life and proud of the role he’s played thus far. And he has every right to be: Gross has been a staple within the community, spreading the joy of music wherever he goes.

But Gross is retiring next week after five years of leading the Lodi band, and a total of 34 combined years as a band director, school principal and educator.

“Bob will be a ‘class act’ to follow,” said former coworker Carlene Ebel Fischer in a letter to the News-Sentinel. “He is a music man!”

Bob Gross leads the Lodi Community Band through a final rehearsal in preparation for its August 9, 2010, concert.

Gross said he wants to take things easy, possibly travel a bit with his wife. Then again, this isn’t the first time Gross has resigned, only to throw himself into something new.

“I retired from the army; I retired from the school district,” he said, “I want to retire, really retire.”

Yes, Gross has had his fair share of going- away parties, complete with the customary handshakes and wishes of best luck. But somehow he always seems to find his way back into the swing of things — swing, jazz, concert, marching. The Lodi local has spent a lifetime immersed in melodies.

“My whole life, I’ve been involved in music,” he said.

And it’s quite the time commitment. Gross spends about three hours a day in preparation for his role as director. The amount of rehearsal time it takes to get ready for a concert is extensive — two hours for every minute the band spends on stage performing.

But Gross said he loves the challenge of rehearsing for a concert. He always has.

“It’s an accomplishment when you’ve prepared a concert, and you’ve just finished it,” he added. “It’s a high.”

Even as a child, Gross had dubbed himself a musician, picking up the French horn at the age of 9 and never really putting it down. Gross’ father did some strumming on the guitar, and his mother sang and played the viola. Gross said he remembers his father bringing home the instrument one day.

“My dad suggested that I play the French horn,” he said. “He just brought it home for me … and I took it to school and learned to play it.”

However, it wasn’t until Gross attended East Bakersfield High School that he decided to make music his life’s work. Though high school is notoriously difficult for teens, Gross said he had no problem getting through the tough times or fitting in with his peers.

“Music is very personal, and it’s very satisfying,” he said. “Of course, you always have (music). If you go to school and you join the band, you always have friends.”

After graduating from the high school in 1960, and moving to Stockton to get an undergraduate degree in music at University of the Pacific, Gross pursued a career in teaching. His first job was with the San Joaquin County Office of Education directing high school bands throughout the area.

But there was a war on, Vietnam, and Gross was a fit young man of 23, holding U.S.-issued lottery ticket number 14 — two numbers that changed his life forever.

“I decided it’d be better to join in the band in the reserves than get drafted,” he said. “I never regretted it.”

That was 1966.

Bob Gross at a Glance

Goal for the next year: To take a cruise with his wife in New England
Favorite food: Barbequed ribs
Hobby: Collecting electric trains
Favorite Lodi restaurant: Wine Country Cardroom
Favorite TV show: “NCIS”
A favorite movie: “The Bucket List”
Favorite songs: “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite”
What he’ll be doing on his first day of retirement: Relaxing!

Gross said joining the Army Band was one of the best decisions he has ever made. The school district often made allowances for him to take short leaves of absence to travel with the band. Gross has been all over the United States with various military ensembles, from Washington, D.C. to Ford Jackson, S.C. He often played for units that were leaving or coming back from overseas to raise the spirits of the soldiers.

“They loved it, they loved us,” Gross said. “We were the most popular thing around.”

After all, he said, that’s what a band is for — to boost moral.

David Contreras, the Vice President of the Band’s Board of Directors, agrees. Contreras, a Delta College student who plays the saxophone, said a band is both a form of entertainment and a community builder.

And Gross has been a part of the Lodi community for about 37 years.

“He’s very easy-going, but at the same time professional,” Contreras said. “He’ll understand your limitations and adapt to what you need as a musician.”

Though Gross is conducting his last concert on Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m. on the Omega Nu Stage in Hutchins Street Square, his legacy with the band will not be forgotten.

Gross helped raise money for the band, collecting enough to start offering two scholarships for high school students. The recipients of these awards are able to attend UOP’s band camp tuition-free.

Gross also increased membership by speaking at high schools and service squad meetings in the area, encouraging community members to join together and make music.

The conductor said leaving his position as director will be emotional, but he promises he’s not gone for good.

“I’ll be around,” he said. “I’m going to play in the band so it’s not as if I would be leaving.”

Even a third retirement won’t strip Gross of his euphonic fervor. After all, he is a music man.

Previous post:

Next post: