A faithful march

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Patricia Gornick and friends are still waiting for reality to descend.

In April 2008, Gornick and fellow members of the Marian Catholic High School Band heard swirling rumors about a journey to southern California for the annual Rose Parade, among the nation’s most prestigious pageants for marching bands. When band director Greg Bimm confirmed the trip in October, shifting rumors into fact, the group of nearly 250 erupted in celebration — even if the performance remained 14 months away.

“Smiles and cheers everywhere,” Gornick, now a senior flutist and band officer, said of the news. “To be able to perform at the Rose Parade is a once in a lifetime opportunity and a real breathtaking experience. I think a lot of us were pinching ourselves; we still are.”

Viewed by an international audience estimated at more than 40 million, the 121st Rose Parade will take place in Pasadena on New Year’s Day and feature equestrian units, floral floats and two dozen of the nation’s premier marching bands.

The grand stage will be nothing new for the accomplished program at the Chicago Heights school.

In the last three decades, the Spartan Band has become one of the nation’s premier high school programs, collecting over 625 awards and honors. Since 1980, the group has claimed 30 consecutive Illinois marching competition state titles and earned the Bands of America Grand National Championship seven times, the only band to ever capture more than three titles.

The Rose Parade, however, is something different, something unique.

“New Year’s Day has always been about watching the Rose Parade and it has more people watching in person and on TV than you can imagine,” said Bimm, who has directed the Marian Catholic band at prestigious events such as the 2001 Presidential Inauguration of George W. Bush as well as the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Faith and discipline

While talent surely plays a role in the band’s success, so too does faith and an unrelenting sense of community.

“We’re talking about a very disciplined group here, a group committed to each other and what they’re doing,” school president Dominican Sister Judine Hilbing, said. “It’s that combination of student talent and discipline with staff leadership that fosters success.”

The band’s central mantra, reinforced by Bimm and assistant directors Bobby Lambert, Andrew Packer, Sister Melissa Blankestyn, and Lamar Branson, is PRIDE, an acronym for “personal responsibility in daily effort.” Since his arrival in 1977, Bimm has insisted his band members focus on consistent effort and a realization that each individual plays an important role in the performance.

“We’re asking students to take ownership of the program and responsibility for their role,” Bimm said. “PRIDE is about knowing your part and working for the common good, but also about being a good citizen, efforts that need to be practiced each day.”

Tradition of prayer

Great student bands, Bimm believes, possess artistry and character, dedicated students who bring intelligence and hard work to their tasks. Against the backdrop of Marian Catholic values, the Spartan Band has established a tradition of mutual care and leadership that has translated into accomplishment.

“As a Catholic school, we can talk about faith and spirituality, which are both conducive to building character. I believe that’s a tremendous advantage for us and a fundamental reason behind our success,” Bimm said.

Before every performance, the band’s officers pull the group together, join hands, and pray. It’s a student-directed activity first established in 1980 and one that survives today. Band officers lead three prayers — Our Father, Hail Mary and Almighty Father — and then share a few thoughts — never about winning, always about putting forth the best performance possible.

“It’s about as wonderful and beautiful a sharing moment as you’ll ever see,” Bimm said.

On the first morning of 2010, that decades-old scene will be repeated in the sunshine of Pasadena when 250 members of the Spartan Band gather for group prayer.

“We will find the time to make prayer a priority, just as we always do,” senior sousaphone player Tyler Salley said. “We’ll ask for strength to do our best and then go out and get it done.”