Since Just(e) Words made its debut more than a year ago, I have shared in its virtual pages my memories of several formative individuals–including a three-post, 5,000-word homage to my mentor at the University of Arizona. I have also noted more than once the central rôle of music in my life, including a full post, “The Many Gifts of Music,” devoted in part to the people who gave me those gifts. I even called one of those people “the most unforgettable character in my life story” and promised to write an entire post about him.
So why have I never written about Nunie? I have been struggling with that question over the last two weeks, and the closest I can come to an answer is that I simply don’t remember enough to tell a coherent story. I have searched my photo albums from the 1960s and found amazingly few pictures of Nunie. I paged through the Wigwam, our high school yearbook, where few photos even show his face; pictures of Nunie should be pictures of his band, after all. I searched Google and located a written tribute and gravesite photos posted by Christine Marin. I found a few reminiscences on Facebook. And I received permission from fellow Globe High School graduate and band member Robert Cubitto to include his thoroughly researched biography of our shared mentor (see the first comment below). Otherwise, I can offer only a few private glimpses into the life I shared with Nunie.
Milton B. Nunamaker was the high school band director in Globe, Arizona, from 1954 until 1970–almost my entire childhood and adolescence. I can’t remember when I first met him, but I know that I first heard of him when my uncle, Reggie Bozzola, mimicked the nasal “chaaaaarge, chaaaaarge, chaaaaarge!” with which Nunie sent the marching band onto the field at high school football games. Throughout my childhood, I had heard rumors of Nunie’s excessive drinking at the Apache Land Cafe, and my mother and her friends laughed about his choice of orange spats to go with the marching band uniforms. I spent numerous Friday evenings in the summer listening to his city band playing concerts on the Gila County courthouse steps. I always lined up with the crowds on Broad Street to see and hear the thrilling band clad in orange and black in parades for homecoming and Veterans’ Day and the local rodeo. And of course I dreamed of joining them.
By the time I was in the fourth grade and eligible for band, we had a second band director in Globe, Reed Halverson, and it was he who came to Noftsger Hill School in 1962 to recruit new musicians. After he tested my musical knowledge and tried me out with a few mouthpieces, he decided I should play the cornet. As a rising seventh grader, I was attending summer band practice every morning for six weeks in June and July, marching to Nunie’s shouted “Eight steps to five yards; all steps the same size. Left, left, left right left!”
It was during high school, however, that I came fully under the spell of this legendary and larger-than-life character who touched so many lives in my small home town. Before micromanagement even became a word, Nunie was practicing it fervently, especially with those whom he deemed gifted. For example, he switched me to the bassoon and my friend Judy Harrington to the oboe when we were in junior high because he thought our musical aptitude was wasted on the humdrum cornet and clarinet we were playing when he discovered us; double reeds were especially prized in our high school band. He also made sure to find talented musicians for the French horn and the alto clarinet and the timpani in the concert band. And he hand selected the cymbal player who started the music in the marching band and the bass drummer who kept the tempo steady.
Nunie’s rigorous process of selection for band membership resulted in a small band and some animosity in the community–but accolades on the field. By the time I donned the scratchy wool uniform and orange spats, the Globe High School Marching Band had won Superior ratings at the University of Arizona Band Day for twelve straight years–a record unmatched by any of the larger and richer schools in the state. Each year before football season, Nunie laboriously hand wrote on two-ply Ditto paper the intricate routines he had planned for the pregame show, and each of us got a thick copy of the instructions for marching and music. Our football field was across town from the high school, so we had to arrive at “about 6:23” (Nunie’s version of precision) to ride school buses for our early-morning rehearsals. Practice was grueling, but we continued to accumulate the annual banners signifying our Superior ranking.
Nunie arranged the music we marched to and himself composed the “Pep Medley,” whose syncopated rhythms gave our band its distinctive style. Our concert season was also heavy on the swing rhythms of the music Nunie had played as a young man. He told us of playing his trumpet for spare change on the streets of new York City during the Depression and of his membership in bands with Les Brown and Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman and Ferde Grofé. We often played such Big Band standards as “Take the A-Train,” “In the Mood,” and “Moonlight Serenade.”
It was the Globe City Band, however, that provided Nunie with his greatest showcase. Each summer the high school players were joined by talented band alumni to play the summer concerts I had enjoyed as a child. The most memorable of those concerts occurred on July 20, 1969, played for a small but dedicated audience. The rest of the townspeople–including my parents–were at home, huddled around their television sets, watching the moon landing. But we were playing the kick-off concert for our long planned Yellowstone trip, which began the following day. We loaded into buses owned by one of those band alumni, trumpet virtuoso Johnny Mercer, and made a six-state jaunt, stopping along the way to play concerts in parking lots and national parks and, finally, on the Strip in Las Vegas. We played at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion and Bryce Canyons in Utah, Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and Montana, and Nunie’s childhood hometown of Pocatello, Idaho–2,500 miles of unforgettable experiences for a group of small-town teenagers.
Nunie’s leadership gave us numerous other memories as well. With his encouragement, I attended music camp at Arizona State University all four summers of high school. I took classes in music theory and conducting, heard my first symphony concert, received the private lessons I coveted, and played in an orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta’s father, Mehli Mehta. Nunie spent countless hours coaching us for statewide competitions, and we always made him proud. We participated in All-State Band and received Superior ratings in the State Solo and Ensemble Festival. And the trips to those competitions were often memorable in their own right. One year, we had only four girls in All-State, so Nunie drove us to Tucson in his own car, a huge beige tank of a car with enormous rear fins. We had a hair-raising trip in which he wildly switched lanes as he lectured us about staying in our motel rooms and not becoming part of the white-slave traffic. Another time, I was especially nervous as I prepared to play my bassoon solo after seeing my music-camp teacher, Jack Rausch, with a group of his private students who were playing in the same competition. Nunie first shook me by the shoulders and then put his arm around me; he told me firmly that I was the equal of any of them and that I must simply do my best. After the competition, one of the women in the audience approached me and said how nice it was to see my father taking such good care of me before I went on stage.
Whether he was conducting the band or giving us life lessons, Nunie’s words could never be ignored. If a flute player slouched wth her right arms hung over her chair back, he would offer to get “a little man with green tennis shoes” to prop her up. When he learned that I planned to be a pre-med major at the UofA, he told me the story of another bassoon player who made the same decision–concluding “and now she’s dead.” He counseled us repeatedly that some worthless desire or another “never bought a loaf of bread at the grocery store.” And he always peppered rehearsals with references to kewpie dolls and encouraged us with my favorite of all his sayings: “Once more for the light-the-mouth teddy bear!”
When I was about midway through high school, Nunie told me that he planned to retire soon. He was always at loggerheads with the town and the school board who failed to provide the band with the support he felt we deserved. Besides, he wanted to move to Guadalajara and write a symphony. But first, he promised to compose a concerto for me to play at the spring concert when I became a senior–if I learned to play seven instruments in the interval. I already had the cornet and the bassoon under my belt, he taught me to play the tenor sax and the trombone, and I could surely have picked up the baritone horn with little effort.
I entered my senior year in the fall of 1970. I was appointed to the coveted position of student conductor for the band, but I never expected the nature of my public conducting debut. It was parents’ night, November 2, 1970, where we were to play the national anthem and a brief concert. We met in the band hall to warm up and tune our instruments, but we waited nervously when Nunie failed to arrive. We complained that he always forced us to be punctual–remember that “about”6:23”–but he was making us late by his failure to appear. Finally, we tuned on our own and got situated in the auditorium. To begin the program, I conducted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as I had learned to do at music camp, but we didn’t play the rest of our concert. Instead, we learned along with the assembled audience that Nunie had died at his home that afternoon of a massive heart attack.
The ensuing days are a jumble in my mind. The first funeral I ever attended was that of Nunie’s mother the previous summer, and his was the second. And we still had a football game to prepare for. Nunie had once offered the opportunity for band members to write a halftime show, and of course I had accepted the challenge. I wrote a show about the topic of air pollution, the climax of which featured a group carrying across the field the coffin of a victim of air pollution, accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” Because of the grisly coincidence, the school administrators wanted to cancel the show. The school board convened a special meeting, attended by band members and their parents passionate for continuing with it. My mother thought public displays were unseemly, so she allowed me only to write an equally passionate letter to be read at the meeting. One participant even asked a school board member who was also a Presbyterian minister, whether a man’s dying wishes should be granted. Ultimately, our wish–if not his–was granted, and we were allowed to perform Nunie’s last halftime show at the upcoming football game.
Less than three weeks later, we earned his last Superior rating at the University of Arizona Band Day. As a tribute to Nunie’s record and to his contributions to music education in Arizona for sixteen years, the UofA established the following award:
Each year at the University of Arizona Band Day, bands have the opportunity to earn the prestigious Milton B. Nunamaker Award for Distinction. This award is given to the group(s) that the judging panel deems to be of outstanding merit. The award is not necessarily given to a band each year. Bands must earn this honor. If no performances merit the award, the award is not given. The award is named for famed band director Milton B. Nunamaker, who was the band director at Globe High School for many years beginning in the 1950’s. Nunamaker was a professional trumpet player who had relocated to Arizona from the Chicago area. During his tenure there, the Globe bands consistently achieved a very high level of performance year in and year out. Even though the band was small, it set the standard for all bands, of all sizes.