And the band plays on

Kenosha Catholic Youth Organization band last remaining group of its kind
By Alice Anne Conner KENOSHA NEWS

The Kenosha Catholic Youth Organization band is a musical icon in Kenosha.

Known as the CYO, the marching band has played in countless parades and at special events since it formed June 25, 1939.

Last weekend the band performed the national anthem in Denver as the Colorado Rockies took on the Milwaukee Brewers — one of more than a dozen appearances and concerts the group has given over the last couple of months.

What the audience in Denver didn’t know — nor do most people right here in Kenosha — is the CYO band is the only one of its kind in the United States.

At one time there were dozens of CYO bands throughout the Midwest and in other parts of the country.

All have gone by the wayside as public schools absorbed most of the students who were interested in being in a marching band.

Kenosha’s CYO is a self-funded, private band that relies on membership dues and such fund-raising events as car washes, bake sales and donations from people who want to see the band continue.

In a time when extracurricular activities are being cut in public schools, when charitable giving has slumped along with the economy, and when kids have dozens of choices about what to do with their leisure time, the question has to be asked: how has this band continued to play for almost 70 years without ever missing a beat?

Emil Pacetti, a long-time band volunteer whose two sons played in the band when they were young, said there is a simple answer to that question:

“The children and their parents refuse to let it die,” he said over lunch last week at a downtown Kenosha restaurant near his business, Pacetti Music Unlimited.

“The parents and children want to have this special thing they can call their own,” he said finishing a bowl of soup. “When band members get older and have their own children, they want them to have that same experience — to look back and feel that they were part of something special.”

Furthermore, he said, the CYO asks nothing from anyone, but is ready to give to anyone.

“Band membership is open to any child who wants to play an instrument, whether he or she is in public or private school, regardless of their ethnic background, and there is no requirement that band members be Catholic or any other religion.”

It’s been that way pretty much from the beginning, according to Bernadette Loewen Lasky whose father started the band.

“At St. George Church a group of kids wanted to start an orchestra,” Lasky recalled, “but when they looked at what instruments were available there weren’t enough stringed instruments, so they decided to have a band instead of an orchestra.”

Lasky said her father, Cy Morgan, was the first manager of the band even though he didn’t play a musical instrument. “My father never missed a rehearsal, never missed an event where the band played and always marched every step with the band during parades.

“Our whole family was involved with the band ever since I can remember,” she said. “We didn’t go on vacation. We went to band camp. The band took up a lot of time, and back then nobody got paid.”

Today the band has a paid director, Matt Garza who had never heard of a CYO band before coming to Kenosha.

“I had come up here from Houston to work at Great America and live in Kenosha,” he said. “I saw that the CYO band was looking for a director and decided to apply for the job.”

That was three years ago and the band has started to grow again after a few years of decline in membership.

During Garza’s tenure, the band has played at Disneyland and in Texas where Garza’s parents — who live outside of Houston — treated the entire band to an outdoor barbecue.

And while traveling to faraway places is exciting, it is only the icing on the musical cake for the CYO.

First and foremost, the CYO is about teaching kids how to play music, Garza said. Membership entitles each child private music lessons. Those in parochial school are taught during school hours, and public school and home schooled students are taught after school hours.

The band is made up of several units: the marching band, called the Emerald Knights Band and Guard for advanced students, the Pops band for intermediate students, a beginner band, and a jazz ensemble.

About 100 students are involved in the program and of those, approximately 40 are in the marching band.

The march in parades, do special performances at the Kenosha Band Shell, and play for both large and small events in Kenosha and beyond.

“What’s nice about a group like this is that everyone gets to know everyone else and a bonding process happens that will be with them for the rest of their lives,” Garza said.

And while the CYO band isn’t as big as the public school bands, Pacetti said, it’s got its own flavor.

“To compare the public school bands and the CYO band is to compare breakfast at Tiffany’s to breakfast at your grandmother’s house,” Pacetti said.

“Tiffany’s is great. But nothing is as special as breakfast at your grandmother’s house.”

Lasky agrees.

“So many families over the years have worked so hard to keep this band going because the kids love it so much,” Lasky, who played in the band as a teenager, said. “The experiences they have…well, you can’t get that just anywhere.”

Garza gave an example:

“When we were in Denver last week, we were asked to play on the capitol steps because a big event — Colorado Days — was going on at the time.

“So we did. There were lots of people, but this one older lady couldn’t keep her eyes off of the band. When we finished, I went up an introduced myself and told her about the band and where we were from.

“She told us she had relatives in Rhinelander and Tomahawk and the band members jumped up and down and applauded when she mentioned the towns.

“Before we left, she asked if we could play a song just for her, and we said of course. She wanted to hear ‘America the Beautiful’ so we started to play it.

“That lady stood there and smiled the whole time we were playing. It obviously meant the world to her right at that moment.

“Those are the kinds of experiences these kids get when they play with the CYO band. You can play for a packed stadium, or you can play for one little elderly woman and it can make all the hard work you do seem like nothing. It’s about bonding with people and making a difference in their lives.”

When the students playing in the current band are older and may have their own children in the band, Garza predicted, they may or may not remember playing at the football stadium.

“But they will never forget that one lady who stood and watched and loved every note we played.”