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Leader of the band: Fulda's Peterson retires from music education career

Mike Peterson

FULDA -- The band room at the Fulda school is filled with mementoes of Mike Peterson's 36-year career as a music educator.

The ledge outside his office bears the weight of many trophies, and more are displayed in a trophy case out in the hallway.

Posters and photographs from the Calgary Stampede Parade are framed and mounted high up on the walls.

On the opposite end of the room hangs the banner that announces the Fulda marching band's arrival in parades.

But for Peterson, the most treasured souvenirs are the memories of the many students who have shared their musical talents with him over the years.

"A daily highlight was always coming to band -- fourth hour," he said.

Having made the decision to retire, Peterson will soon turn out the lights in the band room and move on to other endeavors, leaving the musical education of Fulda's student body up to his successor. In recent days, he's had a lot of lasts: Last trip to the state golf meet as Fulda's coach earlier this week; last time directing his concert band Friday night; and today will be his last trip through the Wood Duck Festival parade as band director, although the band will march in two other parades next weekend under his leadership.

"This whole year, everything's been the last one," he noted.

But the years have flown by, and to Peterson it doesn't seem that long ago since he was accumulating "firsts" in his career. A native of Elbow Lake, he followed his dad's footsteps into music education.

"My dad was my band director, and when I started looking at careers, I realized that everything I was involved in -- I played basketball, golf, was in the band and did the plays -- Mom and Dad were always there. When you're in school teaching, you're part of the school, and you're always part of your kids' lives," he recalled. "There were lots of other reasons, of course, but that was part of it."

Peterson earned a bachelor's degree in music from Bemidji State University in 1977 and accepted his first teaching post in Okabena, before the school district consolidated with the other nearby towns.

"I didn't realize how small Okabena was," Peterson said. "I had 60 students in band, and there were 84 students total. I remember when I walked into the first pep fest, the principal said, 'OK, you can start the school song now,' and I said I was waiting for the rest of the student body, and he said, 'This is it,' pointing to the 20 students on the bleachers.

"It was a small school, but it was a great year," he added about his initial teaching experience.

The following year, Peterson was hired by the Fulda district and has been there ever since. Wife-to-be Lisa was hired as a fifth-grade teacher in 1980, and they tied the knot in 1984. The Petersons have three children: Alicia (husband Chris), who lives in Marshall and works in Cottonwood as a 4-H coordinator; Tammy, who also lives in Marshall, where she is a Big Buddies coordinator; and Todd, a recent FHS grad who in the fall will attend the University of Minnesota, where he will play tuba in the band and carry on the family tradition by pursuing a degree in music education.

All three of the Peterson kids were active in music during high school.

"But I taught for 20 years before I had any of my kids in class. My daughter joined band in the late '90s, and having my own kids in band gave me a whole different perspective. 'Dad, what did you say that for?' he imitated. "But they always let me treat them as music students, and they were all good musicians and students."

Peterson takes pride not only in his own offspring, but in all the students who have passed through his programs, as he has guided their musical progress since they chose their instruments.

"We start beginners in the fourth grade in the spring," he explained. "They come down to the band room and pick out three instruments and try them, then their parents and I help them decide which one will give them the best opportunity for success. Band isn't for everyone, but at least they gave it a shot."

Since the start of his career until the present time, seven former students have gone on to become band directors.

For the last eight years, Peterson has also been the school's 7-12 choir director -- a job that he initially accepted with some reluctance, but came to appreciate.

"When I go to the music festivals, I always tell the other choir directors that if I had known how easy it was to be a choir director, I would have done that a long time ago," he said with a wry grin. "All you have to do is climb on the bus with your pitch pipe. When you go somewhere with the band, you have to load up all the instruments, the uniforms, all the equipment."

Such jokes aside, being a band director is undoubtedly Peterson's preferred vocation.

"Every year, the challenges and rewards come with the territory," he said. "You find out the strengths and work with them, work it into a top-notch concert band. Everything else comes out of that and builds on that. We've always prided ourselves on that -- the balance in the band which helps create that concert band sound.

"And then, year in, year out, you graduate kids and wonder who's going to step up to take their place, and somebody always does. Sometimes you see it coming, and sometimes you are pleasantly surprised."

In 36 years, there have been many highlights.

"We've taken 11 out-of-state, national and international trips, and we played at the state music convention," detailed Peterson, referring to four trips to the Calgary Stampede in Canada as well as appearances at the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. (twice), the Fiesta Bowl Parade in Phoenix, Ariz., Cottonwood Bowl Parade in Dallas, Texas, and Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade in Indiana, to name a few.

The band has won more than 130 parade and marching band competitions in the last 35 years. This year, the Fulda band received a Superior rating for its 36th consecutive year at the Minnesota State High School League-sponsored music contests. The band is certainly a source of pride, not only for the school, but the community at large.

"The people in the community always refer to it as 'our band,' not 'the band,'" Peterson said.

At its largest, the concert band numbered 85 kids -- a tight squeeze in the confines of the band room -- with 120 in the marching unit. Now, the numbers have dwindled a bit.

"But we're still out there with 65 to 75 bodies," Peterson said of the marching band. "'Trumpet Voluntary' has been our theme song ever since I got here. ... Marching band is good, and you need a good one for visibility in the community."

Through the Rule of 90, Peterson became eligible for retirement a couple of years ago, but he wanted to get his son through school before he left the classroom.

"Now it's time for something different," he said. "What that is, I don't know yet. In your head, you know it's time."

While most of his future endeavors are still up in the air, music will always be a big part of Peterson's life, and he will continue to play in the Fulda Area Big Band, which he started in 2004. His personal instrument of choice is the trombone.

"I had one of my former students come up to me," he recalled about how the idea was sparked. "She had just bought a brand new tenor sax and wanted to come and play with the band. 'I need places to play,' she said."

Most -- 95 percent, Peterson estimates -- of the Big Band members are former students.

"We play five or six times a year, because it's hard getting that many people together, but when we do play, it's fun," he said. "We always go over to the veterans home in Luverne and play for their Harvest Festival. When they hear that music, they're boogying. ... We've had five practices, and they were all in 2004. We haven't practiced since. If we add a new piece, we just wing it, and it gets better every time."

As he braced himself for some of his last "lasts" as a band director this weekend, Peterson anticipated some emotions would come to the surface.

"But the focal point is how much I've enjoyed these 35 years, because of the kids, because of the tradition," he said. "This was a good band when I got here, and I think that I'm leaving it OK.

"It was never going to work. It was going to school."

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

can be reached at 376-7327.