'I've been very privileged' - MacGill retires from teaching, but not music
It was 8:30 in the morning at Liberty High School, and members of the Marching Grenadier Band had already started rehearsing "Taps - Eternal Father," an emotional piece it will play at the nearby cemetery on Memorial Day.
"Can you play this without your music?" band leader Gregory MacGill challenges the young musicians. "Turn your music stands around and let's see."
A few sour notes later and MacGill waves his hands in the air to signal "stop" the music. "Turn your music stands back," he says while laughing.
The smile never leaves his face. It doesn't take long to realize that this is a man who really loves what he is doing, and he's been doing it at Liberty High School for the past 35 years. Sadly for the 265 band members, MacGill will retire at the end of this school year, leaving behind a legacy that will be extremely difficult to match.
MacGill began his career at Liberty in 1978 - right out of Mansfield State College - as assistant band leader. When Ron Sherry retired after 30 years in 1990, the baton passed to MacGill. The rest, as they say, is history.
A graduate of Williamsport Area High School, MacGill played in the band there, but he says it didn't have the same atmosphere. "Liberty is unique. Members are valued and respected; not seen as geeks," he explains. "We have a lot of athletes in the band."
Ultimately, it's about having well-rounded students, MacGill adds.
"We have quality, but the band isn't something that totally consumes the students' lives," he says.
Only the third director in the history of the Grenadier Band, which began in 1926, MacGill has added much to the quality and status of the group. The band has played twice at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and in January 2014, the band will repeat one of its crowning achievements - marching in the New Year's Day Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
"We're batting 1000," MacGill brags. "We applied twice and were accepted twice," It's no wonder that next year's band enrollment will hit a record 308 members.
So why retire now? MacGill has a lot to say about that.
"You need a lot of energy to keep up with the kids," he says. "You always want to be at the top of your game. I'm getting older and I thought maybe I'm beginning to wane a bit."
He says retirement will also give him more time on "his horn" - the saxophone - and the opportunity to play more gigs.
He adds quickly that he is leaving the band in the good hands of Kevin Long, one of his former students.
"I feel like we're still on top, and it's going to keep going up."
The question is how do the students feel about MacGill's retirement?
Exchange student Nico Thurow from Germany played the tuba in the band this past year with his host brother. He calls MacGill "a great band leader" and says "his retirement is a great loss for the band."
Freshman Sam Topp says of MacGill, "He's sort of like a father figure. It's upsetting to see him go."
Drew Donaher, the band's Sgt. Major, doesn't hold back on how he feels about MacGill: "He's one of the greatest directors in the state, and even the country. He's also one of the greatest men you will ever meet."
MacGill, in turn, says the thing he will miss the most are the kids. Because band is both a class and an extracurricular activity that usually last four years.
"We get to know them better," he says. "It is more like a family, not just a class that lasts one semester."
Stressing the importance and uniqueness of music, Macgill explains that it is an esthetic experience, as well as requiring a high level of thinking and physical stamina, especially for the marching band.
Is he concerned about the future of music at Liberty High School with his departure?
"The community embraces music, and the administration has been adamant about wanting it to continue," MacGill answers. "The parents group here also is outstanding. When we travel, it's not on the school district's dime."
Finally, when all the questions are asked and answered about his 35 years of teaching at Liberty High School, MacGill sums up his feelings in a few simple words: "I've been very privileged and blessed to be here."