A bad hip, a job, kids and more than 30 years without playing her alto saxophone didn’t stop 52-year-old Diana Obradovic from marching with high kicks.
“It was a reminiscent, nostalgic feeling,” the Eastside High school class of 1986 alumna and LaCrosse resident said. “Some of these people I hadn't seen in 28 years.”
Obradovic is a member of the Eastside High School Richard E. Parker Alumni Band striving to carry on the legacy and cultural style of the school’s first band director, Richard Parker, who taught at the school from 1970 to 1990. Parker was the mastermind behind the band that people came from all over to see perform. He strived to mimic high-energy bands at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), such as Florida A&M University’s Marching 100, fusing traditional formations and songs with Black pop culture.
Since Parker’s death in 2016, former band members have come together every few months to honor and educate people about the marching band’s old style and community impact through performances at community events and street parades.
Toward the end of Parker’s career, former students said administration instructed him to turn away from the HBCU style and toward corps style, which is more standardized across U.S. high school marching bands. Parker retired shortly after, taking his distinctive style with him.
Obradovic said she’s had three kids go through Eastside’s band program at the same time, but she misses the old marching style and Parker’s original arrangements.
“For years, I've followed along with my kids' band experience,” Obradovic said. “I heard murmurings in the crowd of: ‘What are you doing? What's going on? Oh, this is so sad that you guys aren't dancing anymore.’”
Parker’s caring attitude and high expectations for students both in and out of the band room made a positive impact on their lives, said Cathy Norman who founded the alumni band in 2017.
Eastside, the school almost all East Gainesville students are zoned to attend, has an award-winning band program. Norman said students at the school, which opened to serve the students of the all-Black student population after the closing of Lincoln High School, found a sense of community in the band.
Alumni are finding ways to mentor students, provide support and carry on the legacy of the culture from when they attended the school. The school’s former students also founded an alumni association in December, through which they hope to provide mentorship and scholarship opportunities to current high school students.
Norman said the school’s band while under Parker was “the heartbeat” of East Gainesville and Alachua County.
An alumna of the Class of 1983, she said she wanted to do something special to honor her former band director when the school planned to dedicate part of a road near the school in Parker’s name in March 2017.
She thought back to when she and other alumni played for Parker’s retirement ceremony in 1989 — he grinned, stood up and cheered repeatedly: “That’s my band!”
Norman decided to get the band back together, inviting all of Parker’s former students to come and perform at the street dedication ceremony — this time without Parker at their side.
“Some of us hadn't picked up our instruments maybe even since high school,” she said. “But once we did, the rest was history.”
Since that first performance, the alumni band has played many times at the school, at Parker’s wife’s home and in street parades. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made performances harder to coordinate, she said it makes them even more excited to perform again when the time is right.
Aside from having more students aware of the cultural influence of Eastside’s band, Norman said she’d like to see more of Parker’s style infused back into present-day performances.
Joseph Hughes, Eastside High School’s current band director, said Parker still remains influential today, as he wrote the school’s fight song, “Ram Jam,” and their alma mater. Students are excited to learn about Parker’s legacy, he said, continuing his best traditions while also modernizing the band.
Even those who didn’t attend the school have fond memories of the band when Parker directed it.
Byers Hickmon, a 59-year-old Navy Junior ROTC instructor at the school, said when he attended Santa Fe High School in the city of Alachua, everyone in the county came to see Eastside perform.
“It picked everybody up,” Hickmon said. “The whole city, county and community.”
Mildred Parker, Parker’s 88-year-old wife, said her husband’s performance style was what drew crowds.
“The style he used was one that most people could identify with,” Mildred Parker said. “He was the only one doing it. But that was Richard.”
Another time the band came together was at the East Gainesville home of Mildred Parker; they surprised her with a street performance.
“Late one evening, they came to the front of my house,” Mildred Parker said. “Then I had lots of comments from the neighborhood about how they enjoyed it. It was really a wonderful tribute.”
Norman recalled the last time she saw Parker at his home in 2016, which was close to when he died.
“I said, ‘Mr. Parker, would you play that one more time for me?’” she said, referring to the alma mater he wrote decades before.
After fumbling through the first try, he teased her by playing the song seven more times until he did it perfectly, which was exactly the number of times he would make his students re-rehearse music.
To Norman, the group is honoring Parker’s legacy in the best way it knows how — through the magic of music.
“Every time we’re about to play it starts out cloudy,” Norman said softly, smiling under her mask branded with the school’s ram mascot. “But when we start, the sun always comes out. It’s like he’s smiling down at us from heaven.”
Contact Alan Halaly at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlanHalaly.
Alan Halaly is a first-year journalism and Spanish major and the East Gainesville Beat Reporter. This is his second semester on staff, and he previously worked as a news assistant on the Metro desk. He's excited to use this semester to shine a spotlight on underserved communities in Gainesville.