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When Kevin McOlgan walked in the door at Riverside Brookfield High School in 1994, the school orchestra was down to only two members, a violinist and a piano player. There were just 31 students in the band and they struggled to play a recognizable version of the Star Spangled Banner. Many band members struggled to play scales.
McOlgan, who had taught for 12 years at a K-8 school in Joliet before taking a one-year sabbatical to start a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, knew he had a lot of work to do.
"I had left such strong young musicians and then came here, and the kids didn't play as well," McOlgan recalled in an interview last week.
Katie Pilson, who is now the band teacher at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield, was a freshman band member at RBHS in 1994, and she remembers how McOlgan went about rebuilding the band.
"He was very enthusiastic, as he still is now," Pilson said. "You could just tell that music was his life and he did everything he could to make it part of our lives as well."
McOlgan has made the difficult decision to retire this year after 18 years at RBHS and 30 years in all as a band teacher. At RBHS he quickly went to work rebuilding the music program, recruiting students and making being in the band something to be proud of.
This year the marching band had 118 students, while the orchestra had 30 musicians. Both ensembles placed fifth in the Illinois High School Association music state finals. Graduates this year will be attending some of the finest music schools in the country, including the Eastman School of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory.
The love and admiration McOlgan's students have for him was demonstrated last week at the music department annual awards night. In the middle of the evening, some 50 to 75 former band members marched into the RBHS gym playing "Seventy-Six Trombones" in tribute.
McOlgan choked up as his thanked his students, past and present.
"It's been really an emotional and tumultuous time," McOlgan said.
Last fall McOlgan, who had planned on retiring next year, was approached by District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and asked to consider retiring a year earlier than planned.
McOlgan, 54, wrestled with the decision but finally decided to accept a $25,000 buyout. He had two long meetings with Skinkis discussing the matter.
"This has been very difficult for me," McOlgan said. "There have been so many changes that I'm just kind of rolling with it at this point. This came rather abruptly, and I had no plans to retire."
McOlgan said he decided to retire this year to help start the transition to his protege and former student, James Baum, who graduated in 2003 and has taught at the school since 2007.
"I was concerned about the program sustaining quality, and I wanted to make sure that James Baum would be here to take over since he's well-suited and highly qualified," McOlgan said. "In my mind I was just thinking about the continuation of the program and my gut told me that was, at this point, the best thing to do."
Many band members and parents of band members have been concerned that McOlgan was being pushed out for budgetary reasons. Skinkis addressed the concern at the band awards night. He acknowledged that financial problems led to the effort to get teachers to retire earlier than planned, but made clear that McOlgan was welcome back on a part-time basis.
"There's been a lot of concern that we're trying to rush Kevin out or that we're trying to dismiss the band program," Skinkis said. "I want to put that to rest tonight. We have a .3 (FTE) band position next year. We'd like to encourage Kevin to apply for that. We would like to have Kevin around next year."
The next afternoon McOlgan told the Landmark that he will apply for the part-time position. McOlgan has been offered the chance to teach the symphonic band class and one semester of fine arts survey while Baum teaches all the other instrumental music classes.
McOlgan must apply for the position and be formally hired for the part time position although that appears to be just a formality. And he knows that he will put in a lot more time, because the band is such a big part of his life.
"There is really no such thing as a part-time band position," McOlgan said. "I'll always find something to do - music selection, working individually with kids. I know it will be more than just the one or two classes a day."
Baum was a fifth-grader when he starting taking private saxophone lessons from McOlgan. He played for him at RBHS and now has been his colleague on the faculty for five years.
"He's one of the most caring individuals in the whole school," Baum said. "He's really had a big influence on my career path as well as many of my peers. My graduating class had at least five music education students who are all now teachers, in part, because of him."
This story has been changed to correct where the band and orchestra finished at the IHSA state finals. They each finished fifth.