Just a Living Legacy To the Leader of the Band
The New York Times, September 14, 2005
by Samuel Freedman
On the afternoon before Hurricane Katrina hit, as he was packing his car to flee, Lawrence Winchester called Prof.
Prof was Edwin Harrell Hampton, Mr. Winchester's music teacher and bandmaster a half-century earlier at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, and his mentor ever since.
By now, Prof was 77, a widower with a failing memory, and it was the surrogate son who played the paternal role. Along with another alumnus, Lucien Peters III, Mr. Winchester took Prof out for a steak dinner every Tuesday and breakfast at Little Dizzy's on Sunday morning, drove him to all the doctor's appointments, made sure the Social Security check was safely deposited.
''What are you guys going to do?'' Mr. Winchester asked over the phone. He was talking to Prof's daughter, Tamara Hingle, who had driven to his bungalow. ' 'The hurricane's coming. You all got to get going.''
The line went quiet while Ms. Hingle repeated the plea to her father.
''He says he doesn't want to leave,'' she reported back to Mr. Winchester. ''He wants to go to St. Aug to sit out the storm.''
Mr. Winchester had expected that response. Every time a storm descended, even when Hurricane Betsy flooded parts of the city in 1965, Prof would hunker down with the priests who lived in the school. St. Augustine was what he knew and what he loved.
Even in the last few years, when one of his proteges, Darryl Fields, took over the music classes and the leadership of the Marching 100 band, St. Augustine kept Prof on the payroll, letting him sit in on rehearsals or meet students in his office adjoining the new band room. There was a $250,000 fund-raising campaign under way to name it for him.
Everybody close to Prof on this portentous day, though, knew he would have to leave. By Sunday morning, instead of digging into grits and bacon at Little Dizzy's, Prof was sitting in his daughter's car, headed for relatives in Fort Worth. He had not taken any keepsakes from home -- not the painting of the Marching 100 in the Rose Bowl parade, not the certificate of appreciation from President Bill Clinton, not the bust that Mr. Winchester had sculptured of him.
Prof intended to return within a few days, and even on the westbound highway he was already asking when he could go back to St. Aug.
In the twilight of senility, he never realized that by Monday afternoon, the school was flooded, with water surging into the technology wing, the student records office, and the band room with all the instruments and uniforms, including Prof's office.
People from the neighborhood were arriving by boat, with more than 300 ultimately taking refuge on the dry second floor. A few thugs broke into the gym to steal sneakers, but most folks treated St. Augustine as the sanctuary it had been so many times in so many ways.
Edwin Harrell Hampton had been there from the very beginning, the late summer of 1951, when the Josephite Order opened a college-prep high school for black students in New Orleans, starting with 100 freshmen. Mr. Hampton, 23 then, had already done time as a medic and considered a career as a pharmacist before casting his future with trumpet, sax and oboe.
With their mission to minister to American blacks, the Josephites were a living challenge to segregation's social order and to its presumptions of white superiority. The Josephites' black priests were routinely barred from hearing confession and celebrating Mass in the New Orleans white parishes. A Josephite in Alabama was kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan and tied to a tree.
And here they were at St. Aug, grown-up white priests teaching their young black charges Latin and calling them ''Mister.''
By 1958, the year of St. Aug's fourth graduating class, the school had produced a National Merit Scholar. Six years later, it generated a presidential scholar. Over the years, its alumni have included Arnold W. Donald, the chief executive of Merisant; Dean P. Baquet, the editor of The Los Angeles Times; Victor Goines, a jazz saxophonist and Juilliard professor; the Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, one of the nation's leading black clergymen; and such New Orleans officials as Edwin P. Compass III, the city's superintendent of police. To this day, 90 percent of St. Aug's graduates attend college.
Over those decades, Mr. Hampton built the music program into a municipal institution. He was a spark plug, 5 feet 8 inches tall and 180 pounds, and he regarded his students with a contemplative eye that could grow fiercely judgmental at any missed note or bungled step. He had spent years studying marching bands and devising formations on graph paper, and he drilled his musicians for two or three hours a day after school, as much the taskmaster as Coach Flint was with the football team.
Mr. Hampton might throw a ring of keys or even a shoe at an offender. He might reach for the plank of polished wood known around St. Aug as the ''Board of Education.'' He also might buy reeds and drumsticks for pupils who could not afford them, even put in a call to Xavier University, his own alma mater, to secure a scholarship for a gifted student, as he did for Lawrence Winchester.
So the band accomplished a lot of what bands aim to accomplish. It marched in the Rose Bowl and Macy's parades. It performed in the Superdome. But marching-band music alone was not what Mr. Hampton meant to instill. He wanted his students to learn Basie and Beethoven; he wanted them to carry themselves like Misters in a society that reduced them to ''Boy.''
When Mr. Winchester was in school in the mid-1950's, the St. Aug concert band performed in a competition. As the only all-black ensemble in the event, it was scheduled last, when the entire audience had left. After the St. Aug band concluded its program, the judges told its members to fold up all the chairs.
''We're not here to be the help,'' Mr. Hampton retorted. ''We're here to be evaluated.''
In 1967, the Marching 100 performed in the Rex parade, thus integrating the most elite Mardi Gras procession. As onlookers heaved bottles and called out racial slurs, Mr. Hampton kept his students unperturbed, lifting thigh parallel to pavement in their trademark high-stepping style.
As they came down Canal Street, a black woman at the curb dropped to her knees and said, ''I thank God I have lived to see this.''
AND maybe it is God's grace now that Mr. Hampton cannot remember the decimation of New Orleans from one newscast to another. Otherwise, he would know that the damage to St. Aug is easily into the millions of dollars and that the students have been scattered to Catholic schools as far away as Ohio. (Donations can be made to the St. Augustine Relief Fund, 1130 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Md. 21202.) He would know his bungalow is, in all likelihood, ruined.
These days, Mr. Hampton is much sharper talking about the gigs he played 40 years ago with the Royal Dukes of Rhythm. But it's also true, his daughter says, that being uprooted from all his comforting routines has made him more disoriented than ever.
Mr. Winchester wound up in Atlanta, and after several days, he tracked down Ms. Hingle and Mr. Hampton in Texas. He calls Prof every day, and every day the conversation runs pretty much the same way.
''I've got to get back to New Orleans,'' Mr. Hampton will say. ''I've got to get back to school.''
Gently, Mr. Winchester will answer: ''Prof, the city's underwater. You can't go back to New Orleans now.''