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Fuchs puts people first and music second

Officially, Jeffrey Wayne Fuchs’ musical career started in seventh grade. It began with a big instrument — a tuba — and with a big dream for a boy growing up in a town as small as Savannah, Mo.

The town had fewer than 6,000 people and one high school that proved to be the touchstone of community pride. On fall Friday nights, townspeople crowded into the bleachers to cheer on the football team. But they also came to hear the band.

When Fuchs was in the stands, he paid particular attention to the animated man who stood bouncing on his toes in front of the band directing it.

That man was his father — and the person Fuchs wanted to grow up to be.

Gerald Fuchs directed high school bands for some 20 years, and in all those years he made sure his band members practiced as hard during the week and played as well as the team when they got into their uniforms on game day.

And in all those years his bands received superior ratings wherever and whenever they performed throughout Missouri.

Fuchs’ dream was not just to share the same profession as his father, but to be able to do it with the same exacting precision and flair as his father did it, and with his priorities for life set as straight and true as the rows his father’s marching bands formed on the field.

The family would leave Savannah for Kansas City, and his father would retire before Fuchs could play for him. But the father would still offer his son valuable lessons by the way he conducted himself on and off the field, at home and at work.

Now, some 30 years since Fuchs first picked up a tuba, he has been leading bands for more years even than his father did. He has been director of the Carolina band program for the past six years.

Evidence of the kind of job Fuchs has been doing came this past May in the form of a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

One of the most valuable lessons his father taught him, Fuchs said, is that the molding of people matters more than the making of music.

The second important lesson he taught him is that one can’t happen without the other.

The road to Carolina

Fuchs graduated in 1983 from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., then known as Northeast Missouri State University. After teaching three years at a small high school, Fuchs returned to Truman State to serve as assistant director and to pursue the master’s degree he would complete in 1988. By then, Fuchs knew he wanted to direct at the college level, and he went to the University of Kansas to work with the band and start on his doctorate to make it happen.

He got off to a fast start.

After one year at Kansas, Fuchs took over the marching band. After two years, he took over the band that played for the men’s basketball games.

But by 1993, budget cuts at Kansas forced him to take a job at a high school in St. Charles, Mo. The job entailed directing the marching, concert, jazz and basketball bands.

He was still teaching at the high school when he learned of the opening for an assistant band director at Carolina in spring of 1994. He interviewed for the job but didn’t get it. When the same job opened again a year later, Fuchs applied again. This time he got it. He started work at Carolina in August of 1995.

By the fall of 1996, Fuchs was acting director.

By January of 1997, he was named the permanent director.

His chance had finally arrived.

Now it was time for him to deliver.

The organization man

The Massey citation described Fuchs as a “gifted organizer” who is “a joy to those he leads and to all with whom he collaborates for the greater good of their common educational enterprise.”

Before asking yourself why a man would be lauded for simply being organized, consider all that Fuchs must get around to doing each year.

He runs the Tar Heel Invitational, a recruiting event each fall for 25 high school bands from throughout the state. He also visits public school band programs as a clinician.

He serves as the chair of the music department’s Wind and Percussion Area.

He coordinates his band programs with athletic coaches. He leads the 330-member marching band in half-time programs for football games. He leads the basketball band.

He musters, guides and manages an overlapping system of pep bands that plays for more than 70 athletic events a year. He conducts the symphony band. He instructs students in instrumental methods.

And he knows all his students by name, along with the instruments they play, just like his dad always had.

They are the only students in the University who take their exams in front of 60,000 people each week in the fall — and where a “B” performance is unacceptable, Fuchs said.

“I let them know that my responsibility to them is to make sure that I put them into a position where they can succeed,” Fuchs said.

But he also lets them know that they are really performing for themselves — not for him.

“We teach a lot of things here. Among them are qualities that can create success in their lives. Discipline. Commitment. Having a high standard and meeting it consistently.”

One of our responsibilities during the game, Fuchs said, is to create an atmosphere that perpetuates excitement no matter how far ahead or behind the team happens to be. And through this year’s losing campaign that responsibility weighed even heavier.

In many ways, band members go through the same kinds of feelings and preparation as the players do, except their playbook changes each week with a change of music and visuals. His Massey award, Fuchs said, is as much a testament to their efforts as his own.

“It’s a tremendous honor, and it has to be shared with the kids,” Fuchs said. “I have never marched on the field in Kenan Stadium. It’s as much theirs as mine.”

Life lessons

But there is more to Jeffrey Fuchs than his work. There is also his wife, Karen, and daughter, Megan.

He and Karen met in college. She was the drum major of the marching band his freshman year. They were married on May 1, 1982, at the end of his junior year.

Megan is now a freshman at Carolina, but when Megan was growing up, she served as both his clock — and compass.

“I was always home when she was home,” Fuchs said, even if it meant going back to work after she went to bed at 9:30 p.m. As he put it, “I didn’t want to miss my daughter’s life.”

Now, he has to remind himself to get out of the office to get home to be with Karen so she is not there alone. Among his proudest achievements is “the fact that we are still a family.”

Striking a balance between work and family may have been the most important lesson his father taught him, Fuchs said.

Every Memorial Day, his father would lead the high school band from the downtown to the section of the town cemetery where war veterans were buried. Fuchs remembers those days because they always marked the starting date of family vacations. Fuchs had an older sister and younger brother, and every year, when they got home from the ceremony, the car would be packed and ready for them to hop into the back seat and go.

His mother Jackie, who taught what would now be considered special education, would have an influence on him that would prove to be no less strong. “Dad invested in his students. He invested in their lives and their musical lives. Mom did the same thing. She invested in students who the system had given up on.”

She did it with the patience that her compassion gave her, and she managed to get her students to reach for goals once thought unattainable, even if it was learning how to spell their name or read.

Both his parents are now 66 and retired, although his mother hasn’t quite figured out what that means. She still volunteers to teach people her age or older how to read. One of her pupils is an 80-year-old man who came to her wanting to learn to play the piano. She couldn’t say no.

Fuchs’ brother and sister ended up being teachers, too. His sister is the chair of the English department at Clinton High School in Missouri. As for his little brother, he’s now the band director for Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

His father supported all his children at every turn, Fuchs said, but more than the words of encouragement was the solid example he set by the life he led.

“A band director is what I do,” Fuchs explained. “It’s not who I am.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Dec. 13,2002

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