More than 25 years ago, Ronald Parsons took over a struggling Falcon Band that was a far cry from what it is now. Today, the Danvers High School program is 150 strong, including its color guard, and has played on an international stage.
Under Parsons, the band has made three trips to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, along with several trips to Disney World. The band played at the presidential inauguration in 1997 and marched in the Waikiki Holiday Parade in Hawaii in November for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
When Parsons took over, a previous popular band director had just left, and the program was in tatters. There were about 33 members in the marching band, and it would take more than a decade for Parsons to pave the road to Pasadena.
"I was young, ambitious and stubborn, and it paid off," said Parsons, who is now 53.
Eventually, the program grew, said Parsons, who now heads the jazz, marching and concert bands at Danvers High.
As a tribute to his work, the Danvers Parents for Music Education is planning a dinner at the Danversport Yacht Club on April 12. Profits will help build a scholarship in Parsons' name.
Parsons, who grew up in Revere and Saugus, had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell when he was hired as the Danvers band director midway through the 1986-1987 school year.
It was not long after Proposition 21/2 came into effect, and school music jobs were scarce.
"So we began a process. It's tough your first years because you are coming in being compared to somebody before you," Parsons said. "And everyone has a different personality and a different way of doing things."
The turning point came in the mid-1990s with, of all things, a major failure. The band had produced an audition tape for a trip to Disney World, but it was rejected.
"I came into school that year, at the band camp, and shared that with students, with what had happened," Parsons said. "And after the shock wore off, they finally got it. The group of seniors that year turned the corner with the band. They finally got it."
In 1995-96, a new audition tape landed the Falcon Band at Musicfest Orlando. The 52-piece marching band not only took its division, it won the grand championship trophy.
"This band had turned the band around in a year's time, and that was really the big turning point for the program," Parsons said.
The band was then invited to play for then-President Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997.
Parsons built a feeder program by teaching at all levels in the school system. Eventually, the district hired an elementary band director, and then a middle school band director, allowing Parsons to concentrate on the high school.
In 1999, the Falcon Marching Band again won at Musicfest, putting them in a position to be invited to their first Rose Parade appearance in 2001. For a marching band, it was like making it to the Olympics, Parsons said. The band returned to march down Colorado Boulevard in 2006 and 2010.
"It was the most tremendous success we had ever experienced, and it turned the community upside down. Everyone was talking about it," Parsons said of the first appearance in the Rose Parade.
None of this would have been possible without the help of the parents "who cared about the arts, who cared about the program, who grew with us," Parsons said.
Former band parents Peter and Pauline McLaughlin were among those who helped build the band parent organization in the mid-1990s.
"We felt the program was definitely worth working for," Pauline McLaughlin said.
The couple became friendly with Parsons, and they helped raise money for uniforms, band activities and trips. It was Parsons' vision to get to the Rose Parade, and McLaughlin said her husband was more than willing to help raise money and resources to make the goal a reality.
"I can't even explain the type of guy Ron is," McLaughlin said.
She said he has even temper and a way of making students feel they can do more. Under Parsons, the band was no longer a haven for "band geeks." Instead, Parsons let in football players and other student-athletes, not forcing kids to choose between athletics and music.
"He brought the school together," she said. "It was like everyone supported each other."
While Parsons has made a big difference in many students' lives, a former student, the late Nick Grigg, who had muscular dystrophy, made a big difference in Parsons' life.
"Ron would not let (muscular dystrophy) stop Nick from being in the band," McLaughlin said.
Grigg, who died in May 2006 at age 25, showed interest in playing in the band when he was in the fourth grade, and Parsons welcomed him. A member of the Class of 1998, Grigg played trumpet in the marching and jazz bands despite being in a motorized wheelchair and having weak lungs. He marched in Florida and took part in the inauguration performances.
"I just felt like he deserved a chance. If he was willing to try, I was willing to help," Parsons said. "He was one of the most tremendous students I have ever had."
Parsons said his wife, Judy, is the band's "biggest fan." His two sons — Ronnie, now a freshman in college, and Timmy, a sophomore in high school — got permission to play in "dad's band" even though they live in Peabody.
Parsons said it seems like it was just yesterday he had his first interview, got in front of the band for the first time and led his first concert in Danvers.
"In many ways, it's gone by in a blink of an eye," he said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.
If you go
What: The Ronald A. Parsons Scholarship and Tribute Dinner
When: Thursday, April 12, 6 p.m. Please RSVP by Saturday.
Where: Danversport Yacht Club, Garden Terrace Room, 161 Elliott St., Danvers
Tickets: $40 per person. Proceeds benefit the Ronald A. Parsons Scholarship for Excellence. Call 978-337-1529 for tickets.