Smith, Gary E. (1942-) | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Smith, Gary E. (1942-)

Historical Note:

Gary E. Smith (b. 1942) was born in Mishawaka, Indiana to H. Merle and Margaret Smith.  He was the younger of two sons. His father, a professional baton twirler and drum major, and his mother, a majorette and pioneer of "dance-twirl", met through baton twirling. Soon after their marriage, his father left to serve in the U.S. Navy Seabees during WWII and worked in airport runway construction in the South Pacific. Upon his return, he chose to direct his attention not to performing but rather teaching and adjudicating bugle corps drill.

When Gary was young his parents travelled to Florida each winter to teach band drills and twirling, and in 1949 Smith's father began the Smith Baton Twirling School. George Walbridge joined as a partner in 1950, and the duo ran both the summer band camp and a baton manufacturing company. In the 1960s, Merle Smith and Walbridge split their company with Smith taking control of the summer camp program and Walbridge taking responsibility for the company.

Gary Smith grew up immersed in drum and bugle corps culture because of father's involvement with bands, summer camps, and field performance competitions. Some of Gary Smith's earliest music teachers included Harry Begian, John Paynter and Nilo Hovey, and under his father's direction he began playing cornet in fourth grade. Although he played, he was unable to join a public school band until sixth grade when he was a student of Robert E. Lee Junior High, at which point, he transitioned to euphonium. Eventually, his skill as a musician and drum major earned him a scholarship to study music at Butler University. During his undergraduate years, he earned money arranging and composing marching band arrangements.

After graduation, he was hired as director of bands at Northside High School in Indiana, and began his Master's degree in music education at Ball State University. After completing his graduate studies he took a position at St Joseph College as director of bands and also taught most of the music education classes for four years.  In 1972 he was hired as assistant director of bands and the marching band director at Indiana State University. During this time he also began his PhD in education from Purdue University. During his tenure at Indiana State University Smith co-founded G & S Products which produced a Velcro "wet-look" vinyl spat for marching band uniforms. The spats were the first major product produced by the company and as the company grew they began to sell other band products, many of which Smith designed or helped to design.  G & S Products was later renamed Director's Showcase International.

In 1976 Smith was hired by the University of Illinois to serve as the Director of the Marching Illini and Associate Director of Bands. The first three years of his tenure were spent re-developing the marching band program and introducing new field techniques to the band's program.  One of these features included creating field shows which could be viewed from either side of the stadium, entertaining not only the home team but also the visitors.  Prior to this time the band's show faced only the home-team side of the stadium.  In addition Smith incorporated many different genres of music into his field shows. Smith's objective was to make the band's pregame and half-time shows more entertaining for audiences.

Much like Harding, Smith's students found him to be a very personable teacher and mentor, and much of the Marching Illini's success was derived from Smith's instructional approach with the ensemble. This unique student-teacher relationship and Smith's broad marching band knowledge made him one of the most respected marching band pedagogues in the United States. While teaching for the University of Illinois Smith continued his involvement with the Smith Walbridge Clinic and influenced many generations of band students and teachers.  His text The System: Marching Band Methods is widely used in music education and field band classes. After twenty-two years directing the University of Illinois' Marching Illini, Basketball Band, and Symphonic Band II Smith retired in 1998. After retirement, he remained an influential music educator, continuing to teach and conduct. Following the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, Gary was asked to conduct a joint concert of two bands at the high school. In 2004, he returned for one more semester as associate director of bands. Today, Gary Smith is Associate Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Illinois.

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