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Johnson one of founders of All-City Band Festival

Mentor, Minn., native Roger Johnson was one of the founders of the Detroit Lakes All-City Band Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, March 22. He taught elementary band in the Detroit Lakes School District for 28 and a half years. He and his wife, Cleo, have been in attendance at every festival since the first one, which took place on April 28, 1964. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes

The Detroit Lakes All-City Band Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, March 29, has included literally thousands of local instrumental music students and loyal concert goers since its inception.

But one face has been a constant, first as a participant, and later as an audience member: Former Detroit Lakes elementary band instructor Roger Johnson.

“I think we’re probably the only couple that has been to every one,” says Roger’s wife, Cleo — and she can produce a stack of band festival programs as proof.

Roger Johnson was one of the three local band instructors who organized the inaugural band festival, which took place on April 28, 1964.

He, along with junior high band instructor Bill Nelson and senior high band instructor Merrill Miller, conceived of the plan to showcase all of the community’s band students from grades 5-12 in a single event.

The first festival was co-sponsored by Jack Harris of Harris Music Center in Detroit Lakes, and the Olds Band Instrument Company, and featured guest conductor Glenn C. Bainum, retired director of the Northwestern University band program, who was also a nationally known arranger and conductor of instrumental music.

“That was a pretty big deal, getting him here,” Roger said.

While he held two band instructor positions prior to coming to Detroit Lakes, in Tintah and Twin Valley, neither of them lasted more than a handful of years — though he did meet his future wife in Twin Valley, where she was also an instructor.

In Detroit Lakes, Roger remained with the district for 28½ years, shaping the talents of hundreds of local students.

Roger said the part of his career that he found most satisfying was watching the particularly gifted music students — the ones that were “a real joy to work with” — develop into talented musicians.

“The good ones pull you through the darker moments,” he said, admitting that it was an often frustrating challenge, working with so many novice musicians.

It was also a challenge, at times, to find adequate space for band lessons and practices — he recalled having to hold lessons in the boys’ shower room at the old Washington School, and in an old faculty lounge at Rossman.

“I felt each year, if I could make it to Christmas vacation I could make it the rest of the year,” he joked.

But one of the most fun parts of the year was gathering all of the students together for the All-City Band Festival concert, “so the community could see the sheer number of students we were working with,” he said.

When he started with the Detroit Lakes district back in the fall of 1963, Roger had 11 sixth grade students in elementary band; by the time the first All-City Band Festival took place the following spring, that number had grown to 78 students.

Roger took part in every All-City Band Festival during his 28½-year tenure with the Detroit Lakes district, and even after his retirement, continued to attend every year, along with his wife.

Both of them said they were “disappointed” when the festival was canceled in 2012, due to a conflict with the Minnesota state boys’ basketball tournament, in which the Detroit Lakes Lakers were a participant.

It was the only year in which the festival has not been held, Roger said.

Roger and Cleo’s four children, including sons Jeff, Brian and Rich, and daughter, Amy, were all participants in the festival, as Detroit Lakes band students  — and this year, Cleo said, their granddaughter is going to be taking part in the festival for the first time.

Part of the fun of attending the festivals, especially in the early years, was seeing the students decked out in their Easter finery, Cleo said with a smile.

“And when we had our children involved in it, that became quite a fun thing,” she added.

This year’s All-City Band Festival Grand Concert takes place Saturday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m., in Ralph Anderson Gym at Detroit Lakes High School.

Tickets are available in advance from local band students, or at the door, at a cost of $4 for adults, $2 for students in grades 6-12. Admission is free for all  students in grades 5 and under.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454