ELLSWORTH, Maine — Henry Watson couldn’t go to the Bangor Band, so the band came to him on Saturday.
Watson, 88, who was a longtime member of the band and assistant conductor, moved into Courtland Rehabilitation and Living Center in Ellsworth in the spring of 2013. His duties as assistant conductor included leading the Bangor Band in its annual July Fourth performances, which also happens to be his birthday. The last July Fourth performance he conducted was in 2012.
About 30 members of the band — and former members — decided to make the trip to Ellsworth to pay tribute to Watson and give him the opportunity to raise a baton again. The band set up in the parking lot of the nursing home, partly under the shade of a few maple trees that shielded some musicians in the back row from the warm sun that still shone in an overcast sky. There was a gentle breeze.
Watson emerged from the nursing home with a walker shortly before the performance began about 3 p.m. He had been apprised in advance of a special event, but he had not been told of the band’s appearance. He was accompanied by his younger brother, John, of Auburn, and a son, Scott, of Steuben.
After sitting and listening to the band perform five numbers, Watson slowly strode to the front, a baton in his hand, and stood erect in front of a music stand where conductor ‘Chip’ Farnham had led. With a few crisp flourishes, the band followed him as he began leading them in a performance of “Old Comrades.”
Asked after the program if he missed being part of the band, he replied, “Sure. Darn right.” He missed “all the people and the players,” added Watson, an Army veteran of World War II who took a piece of shrapnel in an ankle during the Battle of the Bulge that earned him a Purple Heart.
“It was an honor,” said Watson, for the band to travel to Ellsworth and perform for him and about 30 guests, many of them with walkers or wheelchairs, and family members and staff. They “did a good job,” he said of his former band mates.
As he sat listening to the band perform, his head at times moved in cadence with the music, and sometimes he moved both hands as if conducting from his seat.
Watson, a retired music educator, was a member of the Bangor Band for more than 30 years, according to Lori Wingo, band president. He played clarinet and later bass clarinet while serving as assistant conductor since the mid-1980s.
“He loves music and respects good music, musicians, composers, and conductors,” Wingo said Friday. “He would often regale us with stories from his younger days and those musicians with whom he had a chance to work with.”
Watson, a native of Auburn who lived in Howland a number of years before relocating to Ellsworth, also usually conducted the band for one piece of music at each performance in addition to filling in if the conductor was absent, said Diana Wyman, band secretary.
Watson was particularly interested in getting others involved in the band, according to Wyman: young adults. “He always liked to bring young people and get them interested,” she recalled.
“He always believed in new blood,” added Wyman. “You’ve got to nurture it with young people.”
“Henry Watson was a very, very dedicated musician,” recalled Farnham on Friday. “He also was a wonderful person to be around.”
Farnham has only been the conductor of the Bangor Band for two years, but he has known Watson since about 1970, he said. They taught together at a music camp at the University of Maine-Farmington.
“We had a very cordial relationship,” recalled Farnham. “He was a wonderful teacher. I really enjoyed working with him.”
Watson was educated at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, a music conservatory with a national reputation, and studied clarinet with some “very famous clarinet players and teachers,” said Farnham.
“He’s just a real sweetheart,” said Wyman, who described Watson as “always kind, gentle,” and willing to fill in where needed.
“His love of music and his love of the band was the biggest thing in his life other than his children,” said Wyman.