When war broke out in Korea in the 1950s, Robert Clark was drafted into the Army. In most cases, that would have meant basic training in the U.S., followed by combat abroad.
But Clark, who will lead the Winston-Salem Community Band next Sunday in the Miller Park Amphitheater, had other choices.
He was a gifted tuba player, having landed a position in the N.C. Symphony Orchestra during high school. And he had been teaching in the Lenoir public schools, even though he lacked a college degree. A bassoonist friend told him about an opening in a military field band that was touring various cities -- including Terre Haute, Ind., about 100 miles from Clark's base.
"A friend of mine had a car, and I paid him to take me there," Clark said. "I auditioned during the intermission."
He then rushed back to base to make bed count. The next day, an official from the Pentagon called.
"This was a pleasant surprise," Clark recalled. "They said, ‘Release that man. We want him.'"
Clark played with the band for two years, touring 32 states, Canada and nine European countries. He could have remained in the band for another 20 years, but instead chose to finish school and pursue music education.
"Everybody thought I was crazy," Clark said. "I wanted to get back to teaching. I loved that. I enjoyed seeing people acquire new understandings ... grow and develop." Clark made the most of that decision.
A Kernersville resident originally from Gaston County, he eventually earned a bachelor's degree from High Point University, and his career in music education now spans 50 years.
He started the band program in Denton, and when he led bands in Forsyth County's public schools, they often earned superior ratings at competitions. He held several part-time positions, at such schools as the N.C. School of the Arts, the Governor's School of North Carolina and Wake Forest University.
He played tuba in the Winston-Salem Symphony, and he joined the pit bands of circus and ice-skating shows that passed through North Carolina.
Clark continues to teach tuba, euphonium and trombone three days a week at Appalachian State University.
"A really fine concert band is equally as musical as a fine symphony orchestra," Clark said. "I've really had more orchestral playing experience than I've had band (experience). You see things that conductors use that are effective."
Clark started the Winston-Salem Community Band 31 years ago. The group, which performs a variety of literature for concert band, practices each Monday evening at Fries Memorial Moravian Church and performs once a month. There are no auditions. People decide on their own whether they have the skills to stay in the group. The idea is to give a diverse group of people (including retirees, doctors, lawyers and music instructors) an opportunity to continue using instrumentalist skills developed during their high-school and college days.
"It's a priority for me," said Margie Marcacci, a retired Spanish teacher who has been a Community Band clarinetist since 1986.
The N.C. Band Masters Association sponsors most band-related activities in the state, from festivals to all-state and all-district ensembles. Recently, the group voted Clark into its Hall of Fame; he'll be inducted in November, during the association's annual N.C. Music Educators Conference.
Phillip Riggs, a band director at Reagan High School, is the association's president. He reckons that the association has more than 1,000 current band directors and several hundred retired ones. Just 44 deceased and living directors have been inducted into the hall of fame since 2002.
"I have had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Clark for more than 25 years and have always admired his energizer-bunny work ethic," Riggs said by e-mail. "He has always been willing to work with musicians of any age and ability level and is great with them all. Most of all, he is a true gentleman. This reputation across North Carolina is why I think he was selected for this honor."
John Steinberger, a lawyer, has played alto saxophone in the Community Band for two years, having returned to music after an absence of more than 20 years.
"Bob was a big attraction," Steinberger said, explaining why he joined the band. "He's the perfect Southern gentleman to the point of being funny."
Indeed, during a recent rehearsal, Clark didn't just refine passages and set better balances. He also spoke in what Marcacci described as "Clarkitudes." One example: "Always play with blessed assurance."
Clark will turn 81 this month. He says that conducting (waving his arms) could be a reason for his fitness. He also points to swimming laps and working out with Nautilus equipment about three times a week at a local YMCA.
Clark is married and has five children, including Rebecca Clark, the director of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission. He allows that he is working on lining up a successor to take over the community band. But he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to pack it in.
"There's nothing more frightening than to think about retirement," he said. "There are some people in life that work to live. There are others who live to work. I enjoy what I do."
by Ken Keuffel