How one man’s love of music changed lives

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Leonard Hetrick taught band in Whitefish between 1939 and 1971.

Sometimes in your journey through life you encounter people whose gift is so obvious it makes you stop and pay attention. Leonard Hetrick, who, for 30 years, taught band to thousands of students in the Whitefish school system was one of those people. His love of music was always with him, it was him — a soft, barely-audible hum, a cadence drummed with his fingers on his knee, a subtle hand gesture where, inside his head, he directed an invisible band. Since the Hetricks, Leonard and Ruth, and their three kids, Doug, Lynn, and Fran, lived in our same close-knit neighborhood in Whitefish, Montana, he would frequently drop us off at school before heading to the band room where he held reign. His hand on the steering wheel always padded out a rhythm, his knee keeping pace.

Years ago I attended a sixth grade concert. The clarinets shrieked, the drums were not drumming together, the clarinets and flutists gave up, and the trumpets and trombones blasted with competitive vigor. Through every dismal song the tuba player’s notes were never on time and when he did let one loose his cheeks blew out on either side like two big balloons. My thoughts went immediately to Leonard Hetrick.

I was one of those sixth graders once, trying desperately to learn to make a sound on the flute. It took spending a few sessions at Hetrick’s house to finally get the hang of it and then I was so light-headed I thought I’d tumble to the floor. Mr. Hetrick had actually started us off in fourth grade playing Tonettes, a sort of plastic flute, and eased us into Flutaphones in fifth grade. By sixth he had us on the real thing. Some instruments were bigger than the kids who were trying to learn how to play them.

There were probably 30 kids in that first band class, most of us lugging rented instruments. We were horrible, absolutely horrible. Mr. Hetrick stood in front of us with astounding patience, showing us fingering and posture and helping us read notes. It was like learning to ride a bike underwater. We just didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Woodwind, brass, and percussion all lurched and skidded in an earsplitting cacophony of sound. There was a reason, I think, that the grade school band room was a long way away from the rest of the school.

How on earth did this man do this? Day after day take a bunch of neophytes and teach us anything? Most of us thought a note was what we passed in secret to a friend. Our fingers didn’t fit the holes, everything was awkward and foreign. The flutes and clarinets screeched; the slide trombones slid drunkenly from note to note, the drums didn’t keep time, and the tubas pootered with such brazen blasts that everyone giggled.

Born in Blue Hill, Nebraska, in 1910, Leonard Hetrick taught music in Whitefish from 1939 to 1972 but spent the war years from 1942 to 1945 playing clarinet in the U.S. Army Band. He was a gentle man who stood straight and sturdy. Blessed with three children and a wonderful wife who was also a teacher, he had an easy smile, a nervous energy, a happy demeanor, and ginger-colored hair that turned reddish in the sunshine. He stood in front of us week after week with a supreme patience that was covered over with a huge love of music and seared with the hope that it would all gel someday… that we would somehow become a real band, able to play music that was understandable and recognizable, music that would make our mothers weep with joy and pride.

By high school I had made it to third chair as a flutist and for a few fleeting weeks was even second chair. To this day I remember being fitted for the glorious gold Whitefish High School band uniform with the green shoulder ropes and the huge and lofty white plastic helmet. The jacket was hot, the pants itched, and the helmet created big drops of sweat inside. But when we marched on the football field at half time, by golly, we were a proud and wonderful band.

When I was a junior in high school he gave all of us in band a great gift. He allowed us, each one of us who desired, to stand in front of the band and direct. It was then that I understood — fully understood — the love he had for being a band director. At the slightest lift of a hand he could bring music to life — make it soar majestically until it rattled the rafters, or make it so soft and sweet it could lull a baby to sleep. He could make the music fly ahead at a dizzying speed or slow it to a crawl. He was in control, the one with the baton to bring it to life. He had the super power. Wow!

I still have my flute. And I am still musical, thanks a great deal to Leonard Hetrick and also to a mother who loved music. I play piano by ear and for a time, to my family’s chagrin, periodically dragged out an accordion. Not that many years ago I played my flute on the worship team at church.

Leonard Hetrick is gone now. He taught students for three decades and left behind a great legacy: Music appreciation. Some dropped out of band early on, but some students stayed with it and went on to become professionals. Many, even my age, are still playing in groups today. This kind and wonderful man taught us to feel music — to let it enter into our beings and take us to heights we didn’t realize were even there.

A fourth generation Whitefish, Montanan, Jan Wood Thacker and her husband, Troy, moved to Alaska in 1975 where they spent 40 years. They now live in Moses Lake, Washington. A co-owner of Red Door Café and a longtime newspaper reporter and columnist, she is now a freelance writer, artist and author.

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