The invitation was typewritten and not very long.

“The Westlake High School Band is cordially welcome to come to Guangzhou (Canton), People’s Republic of China, for a special tour. Please send concert program for final approval.”

It was from the Liaison Office of the China International Travel Service, and it launched more than a year of little adventures that led to a big adventure for 104 band members back in 1984.

I graduated from high school in 1983. But it had been a Westlake tradition that the band made an overseas tour every four years. Since my class didn’t get to make an overseas tour — largely because in the change in the staff after Lee Boyd Montgomery left, we were invited back to go with the group. Not all of the nine members of the band in my class made it, but Paul Breazeale, Carmen Johnson, Pam Prinz and I did.

Why it was such a big deal that I’m writing about it 35 year later might seem obvious. But it’s best summarized by an article, the first of many, in the Westlake Picayune owned, at the time, by George and Jann Phenix and where I got my first job as a photographer.

“The Westlake Band is the first United States high school band ever to be invited to perform in the People’s Republic of China.”

Cool. First. Ever.

SKIP straight to hear the audio from one of the concerts.

SKIP straight to see more than 140 pictures from the tour.

It take a village

The Westlake Band had traveled before. Europe. Japan. But this was something bigger. And it took a lot more support.

The budget that Babbitt it submitted to the Westlake Band Parents said the trip would cost about $1,930/individual. For 110 students, four directors, three directors’ wives and 12 sponsors, “the total cost then comes to $248,970 , or about one quarter million $$.” Some money would come from sales of ads in the football program ($4,000) or profits from the Westlake Marching Festival ($15,000). Then, “each student/parent would be required to provide the remaining $1400-$1500.”

So, the fundraising began.

  • Interurban Eating House donated proceeds from the restaurant’s opening night dinner. The Picayune article read, “The restaurant owners, Craig Keitz and Steve Goldman, have decided to donate all proceeds from opening night to the band.” There were 126 tickets available.
  • Band members raffled off tickets for a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, Brittanica Junior or Atlas for $1.
  • Band members sold pizza kits.
  • Band members rented themselves out to do babysitting, yard work, pet care, typing, painting, tutoring, house and pool cleaning through the “Rent A Kid” that Cheryl Babbitt and LaJoyce Kraus coordinated.
  • The Southwest Austin Telephone Directory, Ma Macauley, donated $1,000.
  • Band parents wrapped gifts in Barton Creek Square in December of 1983.
  • Nova Graphics, through Fred Buss, and Chinatown donated the gold shirts for the band that read “I Love China.”
  • People’s Pharmacy donated $2 for each new or refilled prescription during December of 1983.
  • Willie’s Week for the Band was Nov 7-13, 1983 and Willie’s donated 20% of gross sales “to help the Westlake Band go to China.” Willie’s sponsored a second week March 26-31, 1984 and those proceeds were matched by Calcashieu Lumber and Nick Morris.
  • Eanes Properties contributed $100 from every listing/sale in April of 1984. Through this, the band earned $1,400.
  • Sam Gammon Professional Real Estate Services included the Westland Band among a series of groups the agent would donate $2,000 during April for listing or buying a house.
  • Franklin Savings had a ribbon-cutting for its new location at 100 Westlake Drive. The ribbon was made of bills — $300 worth — that was donated to the band after the ceremony.

And those are just the ones I photographed or wrote about. The band parents bought an ad in the Picayune listing 34 individuals, families or businesses that donated significant financial contributions and support.

I don’t remember selling pizza kits. I do remember not being able to wrap presents worth a darn. I do remember playing gigs in Willie’s and eating at Interurban. Neither Willie’s nor Interurban stayed open that long. Shame too. Willie’s served a darn good burger.

In limbo

Before too much fundraising happened, however, politics reared its ugly head.

On page B1 of the Austin American-Statesman, April 7, 1983 ran a 4-inch story, “Westlake band left in limbo by China ban.”

There was no byline on the story, but it read, in part, “China’s cancelation of all 1983 cultural and sporting exchange programs with the United States has put into limbo the plans of a local school band and a Fort Worth Orchestra.

“The act was in retaliation for America’s granting political asylum to Chinese tennis star Hu Na.

“Westlake High School officials said this morning they’re not sure if the decision will affect their band’s plans to visit China in June 1984.

“‘I don’t know,’ said band director Gerald Babbitt. ‘I’ll have to check with our man who made the arrangements through the Chinese consulant.’

“Chinese officials invited the 85-member band in February. The invitation is thought to be the first the Peking government has extended to a band from the United States.”

A week later, however, George Phenix ran a blurb in his column in the Picayune.

“Whew. The problems with China apparently will not extend to the WLH band trip to the Great Wall scheduled for next year. It seems educational events are not tied to the brouhaha surrounding the tennis defector.”

Well, we, as a group, had no plans to go anywhere near the Great Wall. But everyone did breathe a sigh of relief.

Congressman Jake Pickle came to see the band off. Photo by Bradley Wilson

Support all over

Support for the band came sometimes in unanticipated places. One person who showed unwavering support for the band was Congressman J.J. Jake Pickle.

George Phenix, Picayune publisher, used to work for Pickle. Through George, I got to know the congressman and to appreciate everything he did for our district. I still have the plastic pickle noise-maker he gave me.

Pickle met with the band in 1982 in Washington, D.C. He showed us around the Capitol. He let me sit in the chair of the Speaker of the House. He joined in the band’s group shot in front of the Capitol.

But most memorably, he showed up at 6:30 a.m. or so Sunday, June 3 as the band members met at Westlake High School to board busses to begin the journey.

Westlake Principal Pat Patterson exchanges gift with a school administrator in Guangzhou (Canton), June 9.

The support from school administrators was also unwavering, including support from Eanes ISD Superintendent Don Rogers to Principal Pat Patterson.

Patterson accompanied the band on the tour. As the trip rules and regulations said, “Mr. Patterson will be along and will help with any necessary disciplinary action.”

I have little doubt that observations Patterson made while on the tour led to significant changes in music department faculty the following year.

Of course the band parents never stopped. I doubt that the band could have raised a quarter of a million dollars in less than a year without the support of the band parents.

(Back) Band Director Gerald Babbitt, Westlake High School Principal Pat Patterson, Band Captain Tamara Milliken and Band Parents President John Balli; (Front). Gov. Mark White. Photo by Bradley Wilson

John Balli was everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean it. Flip through the pictures before the trip and Balli must have been at every single fundraiser or public relations opportunity. From meeting with the governor or accepting a check from Eanes Properties or eating a hamburger at Willie’s, he was there.

John Balli particularly enjoyed meeting with Gov. Mark White, a resident of Westlake, accepting the proclamation naming the Westlake High School Band as Ambassadors of Goodwill on behalf of the State of Texas, May 29, 1984. We were all proud.

The public relations served its purpose.

But all of the band parents deserve kudos.

  • John and Tina Balli, presidents
  • Carl and LaJoyce Kraus, vice presidents
  • Jim and Sue Wilson, treasurers
  • Frank and Lois Bohl, secretaries
  • Jim and Pat Walker, middle school representatives
  • Donald and Margaret Wilson, high school representatives

They had to do everything from managing the Westlake Marching Festival, a festival that was becoming one of the largest in the state, to keeping track of every little $5 that students submitted for pizza kits, grapefruits or raffle tickets. (And this was before desktop computers were the norm.)

And they had to do it all while they managed their families and jobs. My mom, for example, only a couple years earlier, started her job as a computer programmer having completed a women in science program at UT. My dad was working at Motorola and had a heck of a commute to North Austin at a time when MoPac was brand new. Their duties as treasurers were on top of those full-time jobs. Plus, they had to keep up with me and my sister, a full-time job by itself.

George and Leann Phenix in the original Picayune office, 1981. Photo by Bradley Wilson

Thanks to the ‘Picayune’

From the Nov. 3, 1983 Picayune. Art by Steve Rutter.

And while media-bashing is popular today, I have little doubt that the trip would have been less successful without the support of George and Jann Phenix of The Westlake Picayune.

George gave me my first job. But more than that, he showed me what community journalism was all about and how powerful it can be.

As I look back through the clippings I can find few weeks in the year preceding the trip that the Picayune didn’t publish something about the trip, a fundraiser, a concert or some such. George and Jann made sure everyone knew it was Westlake that had the FIRST band ever to make a tour of mainland China. And they were proud of it.

But George didn’t just give coverage. He let us use the facilities to typeset everything from the football program to the band programs that year. He let staff artist Steve Rutter draw cartoon for ads.

George also supported us a couple years before when the Westlake Band didn’t get an invited to march in the inaugural parade of Gov. Mark White, a Westlake resident. He made a phone call. We got invited. Not sure who else made phone calls. I don’t care. That cold, rainy day was one of the best I’ve ever had.

Media: before during and after

Of course, during the bulk of the efforts preceding the trip, I was in my first year of college at the University of Texas at Austin starting a degree in biology and working more and more at the Picayune. While I knew my way around campus that first year thanks to all the visits I had made for journalism conventions, it was little more than a place to take classes that first year.

I used the trip to China as a way to stay in touch with the high school and to improve my skills as a photographer and journalist. The first article of any consequence that I wrote about the trip wasn’t for the Picayune. It was for the Featherduster my senior year. In addition to serving as band captain and drum major, I also was editor of the paper. Maybe it was a conflict of interest. Yeah, it probably was. Oh well. It was still a good article

CLICK HERE to read the entire article.

My next favorite article was actually a series of three columns about the China trip. The first was by John Kelso, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. The gist of it was that John was jealous of the band’s trip to China. After all, he had never been north of the river.

We chuckled.

But Dory Creedle, by now editor of the Featherduster and also a flute player in the band, replied.

“A couple of friends and I have come up with this idea to send John Kelso on vacation,” she write in her Sept. 28, 1983 column in the Featherduster. “Since the poor soul has reportedly never been outside of South Austin, that poverty-stricken, shack-ridden area, we have decided to raise funds in Westlake calleed ‘Send John to North Austin.'”

We chuckled.

John replied in his Oct. 4, 1983 column, “Junket Offer Lacks Appeal.”

“I don’t want to go to North Austin. Going north of the river makes me nervous. I get a nosebleed every time I get north of 38th Street,” he wrote.

“Go ahead and raise the money, kids. But don’t give it to me. Give it to the members of the band. They want to go to China a lot more than I want want to visit North Austin. I was there once before.

Again, we chucked.

Rest in peace, John.

CLICK HERE to read John’s first column: “To China in a Caddy”

CLICK HERE to read Dory’s entire column: “Send John Kelso to North Austin”

CLICK HERE to read John’s entire reply column: “Junket Offer Lacks Appeal”

And if you have a copy of John’s first column, email me a scan of it.

Then there are the two articles published after we got home. One in the Picayune with half a page of photos and one in the Austin American-Statesman.

Quotes like:

  • At Tsuen Wan Hall, band members rehearsed for their first concert and played for some 1,500 Hong Kong citizens. “It was a good feeling when they wanted more, but we just didn’t have any more—music or energy,” said senior Courtney Smith.
  • After seeing more sights…members were welcomed at the No. 7 Middle School with an ’emotional’ ceremony. “It was probably the best (concert to date), said band member Cory Martin. Mike Rose said, “We were well received.”
  • The afternoon of June 11 included a tour of Honolulu and some swimming at Waikiki beach. “It felt good to be back to hamburgers, french fries and peanut butter,” said Brett Richardson.

But the article in the Austin American-Statesman introduced me to really working with editors, really doing rewrites and writing a bit more than PR.

“Members of the Westlake High School band expected to see some unusual sights on their trip to China, but they weren’t prepared for touching, elaborate welcomes and being asked to sign autographs,” the June 25, 1984 article began.

“The celebrity treatment was evident when 200 uniform-clad Chinese students at Canton Middle School No. 7 warmly greeted the first high school band to tour their country. The Chinese exchanged gifts with their American guests, applauded and displayed a huge banner in Chinese and English saying: “Warmly Welcome to Westlake High School.”

CLICK HERE to read the entire article.

Craig Engleman and Chris Wright play during a jazz band performance in Willie’s while Kerry Taylor directs. Photo by Bradley Wilson. April 4, 1984 p. 12B Westlake Picayune

Directors challenge students musically — and otherwise

There’s little doubt in my mind that the best band director I ever worked with was Lee Boyd Montgomery. He was a frighteningly talented musician and director. He pushed students to do things they never knew they could do.

Gerald Babbitt, well I didn’t much like the way he did things. However, because of him, I learned how to be a better leader. Certainly I have to give him credit for getting the band to China and having a successful concert tour. He had one talent we all give him credit for: He hired amazing assistant directors. He kept Robert Tull — also one of the best musicians I ever worked with. He hired Kerry Taylor as a student teacher then as an assistant band director. Now Kerry is the head honcho. And he hired Andy Davidson, one of the best people and band directors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. At the time of the tour, Ted Bartley and Donnie Supak were also assistant band directors.

Tamara Milliken gives a Texas shirt to a Chinese student.

We were doing something every minute

Look over the eight-page itinerary. You won’t find the word “rest” much. After flying a third of the way around the world, 8,226 miles, we landed in Hong Kong at around 11:30 a.m. The itinerary read “Arrive New Worl (sic) Hotel – Hong Kong. *Lights Out and Bedtime To Be Announced.” That was our last rest after eight hours being stuck on a plane.

From then on, it was tour this, play concert here, visit here, play concert here, visit, tour. Six concerts over 14 days. Two full days of travel. Wise planning with 100+ high school students.

Some things I remember, more or less.

  • The train on mainland China didn’t have restrooms. It had holes in the floor. “Please be advised that the bathroom on the train closes approximately 30 minutes before arriving in Canton.” Hmmm.
  • Our first main meal was like 13 courses. We were all thirsty. We couldn’t drink the water. They didn’t have ice anyway. We drank, before the parents found out, Sake. Some members of the group might have gotten unintentionally inebriated. I deny all knowledge.
  • The concert on June 8 in the Canton Cultural Park, “the city’s most popular site for cultural performances,” was, well, a concert. Sure, there were a lot of people there — thousands. But other than that, I just remember noting that we didn’t bring enough printed programs.
  • I wasn’t impressed by the factory where they made pottery. I was impressed with seeing how ordinary people lived and worked in mainland China. Knowing that it’s been like that since hundreds of years before the United States was ever thought of, however, is impressive.
  • The concert at the No. 7 Middle School — now, that was real cultural exchange. I know we all gained an appreciate for what we have in Austin after visiting this school. The people were so friendly and curious. We could have stayed there all day.
  • Dory got lost. How, I don’t know. She’s a world traveler living in the Netherlands now, though. Maybe that’s what prompted her to major in Asian Studies/Economics. We chatted about it the other day. “That getting left behind turned out to be a wonderful eye-opening experience for me,” she said.
  • I fell asleep on the boat during the tour of Pearl Harbor. A ship passed us while I was asleep. Jet lag. But there was no “rest” on the schedule.
  • The chaperones stayed busy in China and Hong Kong preventing any international incidents. And they were even busier in Hawaii.  I deny all knowledge.

Listen to the concert

So, nothing on this post would be complete without playing a bit of music. Here is a recording of the Hong Kong concert played in a concert venue digitized from a cassette tape.

The pictures. And more pictures.

Then, there’s pictures. I remember when we got back to Austin. I was already on a first-name basis with the folks at Fox Photo in Barton Creek Square Mall. But when I walked in with 31 rolls of 36-exposure color film that I needed back, well, ASAP, I got some funny looks.

But I had deadlines to meet.

Now, I’ve finally got about 140 images digitized from negatives and print, 35 years later. If you click on the photo, you can see all of the images fullscreen. Enjoy.

Westlake Band China 1984

And to my friends who made the trip but who are no longer with us, we’re thinking of you: Eric Garrett, Paul Gipson, Carmen Johnson, Matthew Kocks, Chris Wright, Donnie Supak. Several of our parents are no longer with us as well. We will always be thinking of them.

If you were on the tour and had a favorite memory, share it below.