Members of the Michigan Marching Band were gathered in Revelli Hall before practice on Monday when they received the sad news that their friend and bandmate, Patrick Fleming, had died in a car accident that morning. Instead of stopping the practice, most of the band members came together and began playing, knowing that the effervescent Fleming wouldn’t have wanted them to stop the music.
Fleming, a sophomore at the University’s Flint campus and a graduate of Pioneer High School, was commuting to school from his home in Ypsilanti on Monday morning when he encountered sudden traffic while driving in a construction zone. His 1994 Oldsmobile Bravada crashed into the vehicle in front of him, police told the Flint Journal. Fleming was traveling northbound on US-23 near Fenton, Mich.
A second-year member of the trumpet section in the Michigan Marching Band, Fleming was known to have a constant smile on his face and to be dedicated to hard work on the practice field. In addition to being a student and member of the band, Fleming also worked the night shift at a retirement home. During summer training he worked all night prior to the band’s 9 a.m. practices.
Scott Boerma, director of the Michigan Marching Band and an associate professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, wrote in a statement to The Michigan Daily that Fleming’s dedication and commitment served as an inspiration to the band and the entire University community.
“Patrick had an infectious smile at all times and was a devoted member of our family,” Boerma wrote. “He worked the midnight shift, went to his classes at UM-Flint, and drove back for marching band practice every day. His dedication to living life fully was inspiring, and he had a positive impact on all of us.”
In honor of Fleming, the band will dedicate its Saturday performance at Michigan Stadium to Fleming, Boerma wrote. Members of the band will wear armbands and trumpet pins in memoriam. The band will also leave Fleming’s place in the field formations unoccupied on Saturday, according to a blog post Athletic Director Dave Brandon wrote on MGoBlue.com yesterday.
“Patrick Fleming will be missed by us all,” Brandon wrote. “The Michigan Marching Band was an important part of Patrick’s life, and he was an important part of what makes our band special.”
In the blog post, Brandon expressed his condolences on behalf of the Athletic Department and praised Fleming for his commitment to the marching band.
“This young man wasn’t on scholarship; he had to work to make it through school,” Brandon wrote. “Between performing, practicing and studying he had to work full time at a retirement home to raise the funds necessary to realize his dream,” Brandon wrote. “Every weekday, Patrick drove 112 miles back and forth — to Flint for school and back to Ann Arbor for the 90-minute band practice.”
After hearing the news of Fleming’s death Monday afternoon, band officials first contacted the band’s student leaders as well as the University’s Division of Student Affairs. They subsequently told all the band members before practice, according to Boerma.
Engineering senior Jeffrey McMahon, the marching band’s drum major, was among one of the first members of the band to hear the news of Fleming’s death. McMahon received a phone call from Boerma on a bus ride home from class and was shocked by the news. He said his first thought was how to help the rest of his teammates cope with the tragedy.
“It really took everybody off guard,” McMahon said. “It kind of was like a lightning strike that hit home rather than a few miles away. … It was hard for me to take it in because I think my first reaction as a drum major was to wonder how we’re going to handle everyone else and how everybody else is going to be.”
McMahon recalled Fleming’s unwavering optimism, noting that even when Fleming made a mistake during a rehearsal or performance, he would never falter or be deterred.
“I’ve just never seen the kid not smile,” McMahon said. “There would even be times where he would mess up something in the drill, and in the tower the directors would call him out for whatever it may be — maybe being a step off or playing a wrong note — and he would just smile.”
McMahon added that Fleming’s passion for the Michigan Marching Band and the art of the trumpet could be seen in everything he did — on and off the field.
“There’d be a lot of times when I’d go out just to hang out at Elbel, and he’d be there sitting up in the stands just playing his trumpet,” McMahon said.
At Pioneer High School, where Fleming graduated in 2009, Fleming was known by his peers and teachers as a “wonderful humorful spirit,” said David Leach, director of bands and chair of the Performing Arts Department at Pioneer High School. Leach directed Fleming in symphony and jazz bands.
Leach recalled Fleming’s ability to connect with younger band members and serve as a mentor to students who felt unsure about their place in the school.
“Oftentimes, middle school students think band is a bunch of nerdy kids that talk about notes,” Leach said. “And out comes Patrick … an engaging young man who said, ‘Look, you can be as cool as you want to be and be a student here in this band program.’ And he made that kid feel comfortable instantly. And that’s very much what Patrick was to everybody.”
LSA senior Kevin Smith, the Michigan Marching Band’s trumpet section leader, echoed McMahon’s sentiments and said Fleming had a “swagger” about him and exuded confidence that put other band members at ease. Smith recalled Fleming’s enjoyment of everything trumpet and band-related, right down to the minute details. Smith described Fleming’s gusto for his equipment, in particular his vast collection of mouthpieces.
“He was really into his mouthpiece collection, and so every single show he would come up to someone to say, ‘Hey, check out this crazy mouth piece,’” Smith said. “He always had a barrage of equipment. He had a different mouthpiece for every situation.”
Despite the effect of Fleming’s death on the band, McMahon said his focus as a leader must be to help the band move forward in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“One of the things I thought on the bus ride home is: I have a bunch of different manuals,” McMahon said. “There’s a leadership manual for being a section leader, a drum major and I’m just thinking, this is not in one of those. There’s no way to prepare yourself as a leader for something like this to happen.”
McMahon noted the importance of the band remaining united in the wake of Fleming’s death and continuing to practice in preparation for Saturday’s halftime performance, as Fleming himself would want the band to do.
“We have to continue to push forward for 110,000 people, many of whom don’t know about this, and put a new show out on the field for the Minnesota game,” McMahon said. “So hopefully that will be a healer for people to get back on the field and keep busy and do what Patrick loved doing.”
— Taylor Wizner contributed to this report.