Family a big part of Urbana band's 100 years

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Apr. 19—URBANA — Ken Peters turned down the first three offers to be the Urbana High School band director in 1977 ... then accepted the fourth, and went on to direct the band for 24 years of its 100-year history.

"I went and I looked at the band room and it was an absolute mess," Ken recalls, and he doesn't know what made him change his mind.

"I suppose in a weak moment, I said yes. ... In the long run, it was a good decision."

He went on to teach both of his children in their times at UHS, and two of his grandsons are in the band today; one, Ian Peters, was a drum major in the year leading up to the band's 100th anniversary.

When Ken accepted the job, he wasn't aware of the band's history.

It was founded in 1924, led by Raymond Francis Dvorak, who went on to lead a nationally renowned marching band at the University of Wisconsin.

Neil Kjos was a director for a year before going on to found the Neil A. Kjos Music Company, which still sells music education resources today.

Graham T. Overgard, Clarence Sawhill and others famous in the marching band world all have roots at Urbana High.

As he learned about this history, Ken wasn't too overwhelmed by upholding the UHS legacy.

"My philosophy: You pick the best music you possibly can — don't do junk, do the best music you can pick," he said. "Treat the students with the most respect and lead them to the highest potential they can do, especially with the time that I'm given, the room I'm given, the budget I'm given."

Over his 24 years, Ken worked to transform the program.

Updating the band room was an important step, but so was attracting more students to the program, which in turn served as an argument to bring in more funding.

It wasn't easy: At one point, the district music coordinator decided to redo a Steinway piano that Urbana High bought in 1914, which cost around $10,000.

There went Ken's budget for the next four years.

"I needed another tuba. Nope, can't get one. I needed another euphonium. Nope, can't get one. And kids don't buy tubas, not at the high school level," he said.

Today, a tuba will cost you at least $5,000.

When Ken started at UHS, he had about 75 band members. Numbers faltered for a while, falling to 42 members, but by the time he retired in 2001, there were two bands of 65 and 85, two full orchestras and four choirs.

The program is still going strong today, as evidenced by Ken's grandson Ian's love for the UHS band.

Ian played clarinet at Holy Cross Middle School, too, but was prepared for a rocky transition to public school, especially during the pandemic.

"Marching band was the first thing to meet before school for band camp. We met outside, so it was my first time meeting people from Urbana at all," Ian said. "It was a great way to get to know people before I came to school."

At that point, school was still completely virtual, so band camp was a rare time Ian was able to see anyone in person.

The virtual band class was also one of the few that required everyone to interact and have their cameras on.

"From the start, I felt really connected to band," Ian said.

Four years later, he attended the Smith Walbridge summer drum major clinic to prepare to lead the band in his senior year.

A drum major's main job is to conduct the marching band and lead parades, but they also end up becoming the people to ask if band members need anything.

Ian admits that, like Ken when he first became director, most of the kids in the band now don't know much about its history.

For that reason, he's looking forward to learning more at the UHS Bands 100th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday.

It starts at 7 p.m. at UHS and will feature a concert, alumni speakers from throughout the bands' history and a dedication of the band room.

More than anything, though, Ian wants people to know they should give band a try.

"There's an impression around band kids and band being a weird place," he said. "I think it's just a great place for anybody to try out, and it's a really great culture."