It's been 65 years since the North Battleford City Kinsmen Band came into official existence, although North Battleford has had a community band almost from its beginnings.
Hundreds of musicians have been through the band system, and a group of five past-members-turned-alumni-turned-present-members sat down with the News-Optimist at the North Battleford City Kinsmen Band Hall recently to look back at their experiences and how those experiences have shaped their lives.
It was a trip down memory lane punctuated by tear-producing laughter, reminders of things half forgotten, friendly ribbing and some "tales out of school" that won't appear here.
Garnet Speer, Tatchell brothers Jack and Don, David Dekker and Wayne Jenner are all still involved in music.
Says Don, "The Kinsmen band put the music into our lives."
David adds, "And the love of music, most importantly."
Garnet agrees, saying, "Either you loved it or you didn't. A lot of kids went through here as very good musicians, but once they got out of high school or once they got into university they put the horn away and that was it ... Some couldn't conceive of the idea of continuing on. It was part of their youth and it's over."
But not for this group of five.
"It was a good run and it still is," says Jack. "We're not done yet."
They describe it as a whole life band.
"I joined the band in 1946, and I'm still here," laughs Wayne.
The NBCK Band is a community band whose mandate has been to provide training on woodwind, brass and percussion instruments to youth in the Battlefords and area aged eight to 18 years.
Over its 65 year history, NBCK Band has enjoyed a national and international reputation. Without enough members, there hasn't been a marching band component for several years, but in the past NBCK Band has marched in parades, competitions and festivals in Canada and the United States, even playing for Queen Elizabeth II and travelling to Germany for a world marching showband competition.
Many of the alumni of the NBCK Band have been members of an adult group, the Battlefords Concert Band, formed about 35 years ago. It shared a building with NBCK Band and three years ago, in what they described as a positive move, the adult concert band ceased to exist as a separate entity and became part of the NBCK Band program. All the assets of each became common shared assets.
Wayne shares the longest history with the band, joining when it was morphing from the North Battleford City Band to the Sea Cadet Band, directed by Charles L. "Robbie" Robinson. It was Robinson who brought the young cadets and other boys into what had been an adult band whose ranks had been thinned by the Second World War.
These days it's a co-ed program, but back then it was a male preserve, although Robbie did bring majorettes into the mix.
In 1947, a band hall came under construction and the City of North Battleford and the Kinsmen Club undertook sponsorship of the band. But the announcement of a new name didn't happen until 1949, also the year they moved into the band hall after practising in various venues throughout the city.
Wayne, who is currently treasurer of the NBCK Band and has been playing for 68 years, says, "We had a pretty good run in the early fifties, winning the awards in Calgary all the time."
But their founder didn't see all their success. He became ill in 1951 and suffered a fatal stroke in 1952.
"After Robbie got ill, with a heart problem, Larry Tatchell took over the band," says Wayne. Larry was the father of Don and Jack.
"Robbie was aware of Norm Lehman, in Regina," says Wayne. "Somehow they got a committee together and convinced him to come up and take over the band.
Lehman directed the band from 1952 until 1971, with Wayne, Don, Jack, Garnet and David all members under his leadership. His military style leadership was strict but effective.
Jack says he has many memories growing up in the Kinsmen band, "all around Norm Lehman, how he ran it so tight and so strict, but the kids loved him."
He says, "The kids had respect for him. He was a great man."
Wayne, who was a trumpet player at the time, says Lehman taught, "discipline, respect and a whole lot of pride in what we accomplished."
There was marching band, a concert band, "and we had a little dance band, Norm's Revellers. We used Norm Lehman's stands and music and lights. I think that went on for years."
Garnet adds Lehman made all the stands and all the lights.
"He was an inventive guy."
When Wayne moved to Saskatoon to go to university he continued his musical interests.
"At university I played in the Saskatoon symphony for four years," he says.
He was also a charter member of an infamous campus band that spoofed college marching band, founded in 1954 by "Bobs" Caldwell. Its name at one time was the G.B. Armstrong Memorial Vegetable Soup Contest and Tug O' War College Marching Band.
"If anybody tries to tell you they are a charter member, let them repeat that name," laughs Wayne.
Soon after, it became known as the Intensely Vigorous College Nine.
It continues to this day, although it is now a pep band for hire and no longer affiliated with the university.
"In 1955 we formed the Varsity Band, a big band dance band," says Wayne. " When Garnet arrived, we organized a quintet and we had two other people from North Battleford and a piano player from Canora."
This was under the music directorate.
Garnet says there was also a pep band with many of the same people, under the sports directorate, which paid for train trips to places like Edmonton, Winnipeg and Prince Albert.
At the mention of Prince Albert, "the piano story" enters the conversation, with Wayne being urged to share just how a piano disappeared from a box car on the train during a trip to and from that city.
Wayne chuckles, "Someday I'll tell you truth about that."
Moving on with his story, Wayne says he ended up in Calgary where he joined the Navy Reserve Band for about a year and a half, before a series of transfers saw him eventually returning to North Battleford in 1968. He was welcomed back by his musical friends, and played in a big dance band that was in place at that time and eventually the Battlefords Concert Band.
Of course, he was a member of the famed Humperville High All-Girls Band, established for the 1964 diamond jubilee to become a highlight of the annual fair parade for years to come. In fact, the Tatchells, Garnet and David all played in the Humperville band.
Garnet says people wanted to hire them to play in other places and march in other parades, but they said, no, it's just a North Battleford thing. Besides, "They might haul us off to a loony bin!"
Wayne also reminded his fellow musicians about the "big controversy in the seventies - hair!"
Norm Lehman, who was a barber and favoured the military style for his band, was insisting on short hair.
"We had a hundred and fifty kids and three hundred parents and the fight was on," said Wayne. David points out, "It was hard to go to school with a military hair cut in those high school years."
He and his friend Bill Osborn thought they could outfox Norm Lehman, whose rule was "hair off the collar."
The wore muscle shirts, says David. With no collars they could wear longer hair.
"So we're getting ready going on a trip, I think marching in Edmonton, we're all on the buses and Bill and I are laughing at all the people in the band with their haircuts."
But the tables were about to turn.
"Norm Lehman comes on the bus and says, 'Dekker! Osborn! Off the bus." And he took us off and gave us a haircut."
It was hot and everybody had to wait in the heat while their locks were shorn.
"He cut it really short," says David, and when they got back on the bus, then they got their own back with jeering and catcalls. "We thought we'd outfoxed him and we didn't."
Looking back, it's funny, but, says Wayne, some members actually left the band over the hair rule.
Wayne, Don, Jack, Garnet and David all marched under Norm Lehman's military-like leadership.
Garnet says, "Those were very formative years, he changed everything. He was a military man. He conducted an air force band during the Second World War, and his dad was a band leader and he learned his trade from his dad."
It was strict, says Wayne.
"If there happened to be horse manure on the street, in Lehman's band you marched right through it; you didn't even turn your head," laughs Wayne. "One year in Calgary he insisted that there were no horses in front of our band."
According to Don, who was the national RCMP Band's drummer from 1969 to 1973, one of the highlights of being in Norm Lehman's marching band was going to Moose Jaw every May long weekend for the Moose Jaw International Kinsmen Band Festival.
"Back in their heyday in late sixties, when I was going to the band festival, there would be fifty plus marching bands in Moose Jaw."
It was a festival competition not only for marching, but for ensembles and solo competitors.
"It was a huge, huge undertaking."
It attracted bands from Canada and the United States.
"Saturday, really the last day of the festival, was their big parade where we'd march from the top of the hill to downtown. We called it the golden mile, and on one occasion we were the lead band."
He laughs, "We were the first band to come down the hill and start the whole parade, and that was great, except the very first band that got to start the parade got loaded on the bus and went back up the hill and had to be the last band that came down as well - so we had to march it twice."
After the parade, he says, they would have a big concert in the arena. They would bring in a high-profile guest band. In addition, the winners of the solo competitions of each instrument got to play for two or three numbers with the guest concert band.
"The last year that I was there - it would have been 1969 - it was pretty incredible. It was the United States Air Force Academy Band. I had won my solo class, my brother Jack had won his solo class in trumpet, and my sister Muriel had won her class [in oboe]. The three of us from our family got to guest with the band on that Saturday. That was quite a highlight."
The whole thing was just a great experience for any kid, he says. But it's different now. everyone agrees. A decline in numbers means fewer marching bands.
For those bands who still march, says Garnet, the focus has moved from the parade to the football stadium where they perform "fancy drill."
David also looks back at the Moose Jaw festival as an incredible spectacle.
"You can imagine what that was like to watch, marching band after marching band."
He says, "It was such a high level of competition, the band was so focused on doing well, and Norm Lehman, especially, would make sure his crew, the people he brought down there, were good."
David remembers Norm Lehman and his father being good friends, so the oldest son had to be in the band.
"I wasn't as excited as my dad was, but I figured, 'I'll play drums, because a drummer could be a rock drummer some day and I could make some money at this.' So we went to see Norm Lehman, because it was Norm who decided what you played. He said, 'What's your interest?'
David told the bandleader, "I want to play drums," and Lehman said, "You have tiny little fingers. You're going to play the E flat clarinet."
He remembers being unhappy about playing the petite instrument, but eventually he moved on to a larger version.
Like many at the time, he was taught by other band members.
"Senior band members taught the junior band members, says David. He counts himself fortunate to have learned from John Thrower, who is still in the music industry, working and composing in Europe.
"He's a fabulous clarinetist."
David adds, "I still play clarinet in the concert band and picked up the alto saxophone and play that in King Street Station band."
(He's also returning to his dream of being a drummer. Don laughs, "Dave's come full circle; he's starting to play some percussion in the band now.)
David says of the group, "We were all senior band members at one time and taught younger ones Norm would oversee all of this to make sure we weren't fooling around. What a great experience."
There wasn't enough time for Lehman to teach everyone individually.
"He had to do this and it worked well," says David. "It not only taught the young students coming in how to play and how to get better, it also taught the teachers. It was deemed an honour to be asked. You didn't apply for this. Norm assigned you. 'You be here Saturday at nine!"
They also got paid. David says he made 50 cents a lesson.
New students started out in the C band, says David, and as they grew in ability graduated to the B band.
"Of course, everyone in the B band was working hard and dying to get in to the A band, where you could march and you got a uniform." He adds, "You got a rank. It was very military the way norm ran the band. everyone was taught the importance of discipline, there was no room for anyone's ego."
They learned the importance of teamwork from Lehman, says David.
"He used to say. 'The band was only as good as its weakest member, so don't be that weakest member.'"
Every band member had to fill out practice sheets. Each week they had to write down how long they practised and have their parents sign it before turning it in.
"There was no fooling around," says David. "This is how we got ready for things like Moose Jaw. Everybody was well practiced and God help you if you cheated the system - and we all tried, and we all did, let's be honest," he laughs.
When David went on to university, like Wayne, he became a member of the College Nine, and has been exposed as having crashed a party in John Diefenbaker's Bessborough hotel room. It all worked out, apparently, as Diefenbaker invited them to play for his last nomination meeting in Prince Albert.
Jack was 12, in Grade 7, when he joined the band.
"Don and I used to take piano lessons at the convent with the nuns, because my mother wanted us to be piano players," says Jack. "Don and I fought that image all the way and I don't know how she put up with us, but anyway, Dad came home one day and said, 'If you are not going to play piano. you're still going to be involved in music.' So he grabbed us and marched us down to the band hall and registered us in the band."
Don is impressed by the fact that nearly every child who went through the Kinsmen band program emerged being able to play well. They were taught to read music and they took theory lessons.
"You were taught how to play properly, and certainly more than what a lot of people get in today's world."
For Don, a highlight is when the band went to Expo in Montreal in 1967.
"I turned 16 on the train coming home," he says. "We rode the train from Saskatoon to Ottawa, and then took school buses to Montreal. It was just amazing what that was like for a young kid."
When he finished high school, he continued to play even though he was out of the Kinsmen band system. He played in the Cosmopolitan Band in Edmonton for a year before moving to Saskatoon to go to school. There, he found himself a member of the same College Nine that Wayne had cavorted with.
Then there were a few years when he wasn't playing music, but when he moved back to North Battleford in 1978, he got involved in music again.
"I remember our Dixieland band playing for John Gormley's nomination," he says.
At Garnet's continual urging, he eventually joined the concert band, which he has not been a part of for 30 years.
Garnet began playing after his uncle sent a clarinet from Toronto to Garnet's dad. (It was an Albert system, he says, "beyond the pale," but eventually his uncle wanted it back.)
Garnet says his dad took the clarinet to the band hall and met Robbie, and Garnet began taking private lessons with the bandleader and eventually joined the band.
"It was the sea cadet band at that time," he says.
"My best memory is getting into the band with Lehman and starting to march," says Garnet.
The first year he went to Calgary, Wayne was still with the band, being able to go back for one year after graduating.
"Here I am, 13 or 14, on a bus to Edmonton."
There they got on a train, and slept through the night.
"We went on to Calgary," says Garnet. "That's where we woke up, got out, marched in the parade four or five miles, and we won! That was a very touching moment."
He adds the whole experience was a real eye opener for him. They were allowed to go to the Stampede in the afternoon, then they headed back to the train, arriving in Edmonton by morning, then busing back to North Battleford.
"I'd never done anything like that. That was wild, and," he adds conspiratorially, "I got to see Norm Lehman and Gordie Alexander have a beer."
He noted they didn't get in trouble, but they were criticized for that. Apparently, Lehman was also known to cuss.
"It was Norm Lehman and my dad who taught me to swear," laughs David.
Lehman was also innovative. He was the first bandleader to put NBCK Band on skates. Several photos of these feats are found in the band's several history books.
Once Garnet was out of the Kinsmen band, he "never quit" music.
He played all through university, played in a professional "hooch koochie band" where he says, "we got into a lot of trouble," and played on the boat that plies the waters between Waterton Lakes National Park in the southwest corner of Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana, U.S.
Apparently the Waterton period and the Prince of Wales Hotel, with which Wayne was also involved, is another of those "never happened" legends that can reduce a group of five men to tears (of laughter). Garnet says, "We had a lot of fun."
During the NBCK Band's heyday, says Wayne, every kid in town wanted to be in it.
Don agrees, saying, "Being part of the City Kinsmen Band was not unlike having kids in hockey today. If you're going to play hockey, you playing hockey. You've always got your kid at the rink, going to weekend tournaments all over the place, and that band was the same thing then."
He says, "If you were in the band, you were in the band, and you practised every day and you went to the Moose Jaw festival and you went in the summer and late spring doing parades in Saskatoon and Turtleford and Glaslyn and you were going to all the outlying areas."
"You lived the band," says Garnet.
"Exactly," says Don. "It was a big commitment. It was not only a big commitment for yourself, it was a family commitment, because the amount of fundraising that had to happen and the support you had to give the organization as parents to keep your kids in the band was huge."
There were fees to belong but they weren't expensive. But there were all manner of fundraisers, including bingos, fresh fruit drives and running a food booth at the fair.
Times have now changed. The band no longer marches and it's numbers have gone down, especially since the program the band used to deliver to Light of Christ Catholic School Division students has moved into the schools.
Garnet says the school getting involved in music was the beginning of the dilution of the NBCK Band program, but it's just a natural thing, he adds.
"It happens and it happens everywhere, but we were able to keep our community band going," he says. "We're still kicking."
David looks back at what the legacy of the NBCK Band has done for them as adults.
"When you get into business there's a lot of stress, and you need a way to release, a diversion, a hobby," he says. "Being in the band, when you're playing music, there's no room in your head for anything else, so everything is forgotten. The best night of the week was the night there was band practice, as an adult in business."
Heads nod around the table as he says, "To this day, it's by far the best form of coping with day to day stresses that everyone has, and everyone in our band, I think, would say the same thing."
He adds, "What a gift."
The North Battleford City Kinsmen Band will be celebrating its 65th anniversary Sunday, Dec. 7 at 2:30 p.m. with Music and Mayhem at the Dekker Centre for the Performing Arts, under the direction of Jackie Kroczynski.
Earlier in the week, Gene Aulinger (who never really retires) will lead the North Battleford City Kinsmen Beginner and Intermediate Bands in a concert at the band hall at 1801-104th St. The concert is Wednesday, starting at 7 p.m. Admission is free.