Viewpoint: Life's too short

BY DR. SCOTT BOERMA

Published October 27, 2011

The passing of our Michigan Marching Band member and friend, Patrick Fleming, on Monday, Sep. 26, 2011, was a shock to all of us. A second-year member of the trumpet section, Fleming died in a car accident while driving to classes at the University's Flint campus. He was an intensely dedicated Michigan Marching Band member, who worked late at night at a senior center, drove to classes in Flint and rushed back to Ann Arbor each day for our rehearsals. Also an extremely likeable person, Fleming always wore a gleaming smile.

Of course, nothing prepares you for something like this. Upon hearing the news of his passing, we immediately informed the administration of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance as well as the University Dean of Students. The Division of Student Affairs immediately assembled a team to speak with our band members, informing them of the various counseling options available. I will never forget how our band members held onto each other and took care of each other in the days and weeks that followed. It was one of the saddest experiences imaginable, but it was also so very inspirational.

Within a day of learning of the news, longtime marching band supporter Donald Shepherd established a new scholarship in Fleming’s name, to be awarded to a deserving student each year, beginning in the fall of 2012. On the day of the accident, both University Athletic Director Dave Brandon and head football coach Brady Hoke called us to express their condolences. Hoke also attended Fleming’s visitation service the following week. Before we could even ask, Brandon suggested that we have a moment of silence before the National Anthem at that weekend’s football game. Fleming’s spot in the marching drill was left vacant during our performances that day.

Two days following Fleming’s accident, several members of the Michigan State University, the Ohio State University and the Eastern Michigan University Marching Bands appeared at our rehearsal with signed cards of support. The Spartan Marching Band had assembled the previous day and produced a DVD of them performing Amazing Grace for us. The Ohio State band members, who made an eight-hour round trip to be with us that day, presented us with a drum major baton specially engraved with a dedication to Fleming. These students had also reached out to the other Big Ten marching bands, collected flowers and cards of sympathy, and gave them to us at our rehearsal that afternoon. I’ll never forget the looks in our students’ faces as this unbelievable show of support was taking place.

During the week that followed, e-mails, phone calls and cards appeared from all of the Big Ten bands, other Michigan universities and university bands from across the country, including the Universities of Georgia, Texas and Florida, to name just a few. A moment of silence for Fleming was given during the Skull Session at OSU that Saturday and also at the University of Michigan v. Northwestern game the following weekend. The Northwestern University Marching Band had wristbands made that were inscribed with “We Are With You.” These wristbands combined their purple with our maize-and-blue and were worn by their band during their game against Michigan. Michigan Marching Band members who traveled to Evanston that day were presented with wristbands to bring home for every member of our band.

This outpouring of support from our brothers and sisters throughout the band world has left us all in awe of the activity in which we’re involved. At a time when poor sportsmanship and over-the-top competitiveness can dominate in football rivalries, we were reminded this season that human kindness and compassion exist and thrive in our band community. None of us will ever look at another university marching band through the same lens as before, and hopefully we’ll all cheer just a little bit louder when given the opportunity.

So, Michigan fans, perhaps this might inspire more of us to reconsider our approach to game days in the Big House. Maybe booing our student visitors from other schools is contradictory to what we call the “Michigan Difference.” Maybe chanting “You Suck” during and at the end of the Michigan Band’s traditional "Temptation" is not the class act that we claim to uphold in Ann Arbor. Maybe “killing our visitors with kindness” would be a better plan of attack than demonstrating the kind of poor sportsmanship witnessed too often in athletic arenas these days. Life is too fragile and too short to waste with negativity and ill intentions. Go Blue!

Scott Boerma is the director of the Michigan Marching and Athletic Bands and a Donald R. Shepherd associate professor of conducting.