The 420 members of the massive Strath Haven High School Marching Band will fill the football field at this Friday night's home game to serenade their angel, the late Jack Hontz, who nurtured the band he loved for 34 years by finding a place in it for every student who wanted one.
Hontz, 57, who suffered a fatal heart attack in June, will always be remembered as the all-music, all-the-time muse who inspired one-third of the Wallingford, Delaware County, high school's 1,200-student body to march in the Panther band as musicians or as members of the honor guard, flag squad, dance team, and dance line.
No prior interest or talent in music was required, said Patrick Murray, one of Hontz's former students, Class of 2010. Murray now teaches music at Strath Haven and directs the marching band.
As an entering freshman, Murray said, he didn't play any instruments. "Jack was always about having as many tubas in the marching band as possible. They look impressive. So Jack approached me at the end of my freshman year and said, 'I could use some more tubas.'"
Murray said he knew nothing about tubas. Hontz told him not to worry. "Jack took time out of his lunch period and gave me private lessons on the tuba," Murray said. "He kept telling me, 'You'll get this. Don't worry.'"
By sophomore year, Murray was marching with his tuba.
"I was not the best tuba player in the entire world," he said. "That didn't mean I couldn't be part of the marching band. The thing with Jack was, he would take you at whatever level you were at, and he never left you out of the group."
Principal MaryJo Yannacone remembered a father worried that his daughter, the only entering freshman from her middle school, would feel lost in ninth grade because she didn't know anyone.
"I walked her to Jack's office," Yannacone said. "She didn't play any instrument. He taught her the bells and gave her a place in the marching band. He made her a part of the high school family. When Jack died, she was one of the first people to post a message about the way he changed her life."
Yannacone said Hontz went out of his way to include students with special needs.
"There was a young man on the autism spectrum who had never played an instrument and struggled with communication," she said. "Jack taught him to play the cymbals in the band, so he really felt a part of something larger than himself."
Yannacone said Hontz was always asking her about students who had found something that their parents couldn't afford. If she told him a student's parents couldn't afford a clarinet, "Jack would say, 'I'm going to get that kid a clarinet.' And then he'd go to find a way to make that happen."
Murray said Hontz's relationship with the Panther football team and its head coach Kevin Clancy was extraordinary.
"One of the coolest parts of what Jack did was that every marching band member wears a T-shirt under his or her uniform with a big number 12 on the back," Murray said. "Jack's idea was there are 11 men on the football field and the marching band is the 12th man.
"After every game," Murray said, "the football players would shake hands with the other team and then, before they went to meet with Coach Clancy, they ran over to the marching band and raised their helmets while Coach Clancy gave Jack a wave."
Clancy's Strath Haven football teams were District 1 champions in 1993, 1996 to 2003, 2005, and 2010; state champions in 1999 and 2000; and hold the state record for 44 consecutive district wins. He said Hontz's marching bands were the 12th man, every step of the way.
"The kids all bought into it, and I bought into it, too," he said. "Rain or snow or 20 degrees, he came out. It wasn't good for his instruments, I'm sure. He never missed a game. Nobody on the team wears a number 12 jersey. The band is our 12th man."
Clancy said Hontz's bands ate pregame meals with the football team, then signaled with their drums the start of football Friday nights.
Murray said the marching bands became known for their stunning entrance at away games: 12 buses pulling up and more than 400 band members marching into the stadium, two-by-two, to the drummers' beats.
"Imagine 400 kids marching two-by-two to the drum cadence," Murray said. "I mean, the lines go on forever."
Clancy said the high-spirited band was a huge hometown boost at away games. "Wherever you went, you never felt you were on the road," he said.
Henry Pearlberg, assistant director of the marching band and music teacher at the middle school that supplies the band's steady stream of musicians, had been Hontz's close friend since they both arrived in Wallingford during the summer of 1983.
"The marching band program had fallen upon hard times," Pearlberg recalled. "Nothing was going on here. …We literally looked at a list of kids who used to play. We went down to the cafeteria at lunchtime, recruiting. We made phone calls, knocked on doors, got a few to come back. Our very first marching band had 40 kids — 24 musicians and 16 girls in the band front."
That's when Hontz made what turned out to be a life-changing decision for the marching band: He rejected holding auditions to recruit only the best players for a competitive band and instead made his band non-competitive and open to everyone.
"We have some kids who are very gifted and some who are not, and for everyone, marching band is a place they can call home," he said.
"If you look closely at the band," Pearlberg added, "some might not be marching in step all the time, some may not be able to play the correct notes all the time, but when you see the big picture, it looks great and sounds great. We've had around 400 members for the past 10 years."
Pearlberg met Hontz when they both attended West Chester University and marched in the band. They had directed the Strath Haven band together for 34 years. So Hontz's sudden death hit Pearlberg hard.
"This was not in the master plan," Pearlberg said. "Jack and I have been friends for almost 40 years. We were going to be doing this till we both retired. I feel this huge sense of loss personally. I'm still grieving.