December 27, 2012

Huffman: ‘Never content with any less’

by Dave Kitchell
Local Columnist

— For all the words and stories that best described the moxie and mettle of one Joseph M. Huffman, the phrase that may have offered the best clue about what defined him was in the Logansport High School  song he penned. After writing “On any assignment, we’ll make the grade,” he made a reference to the band he directed for nearly 40 years: “Logansport High School leads the parade.” Then came the line that could be on his legacy: “Never content with any less”.

In a life that spanned more than 92 years, Joe was never content with being just a neighbor, just a church member, just a just a teacher or just a part-time parent or occasional spouse. He could never settle for being the kind of teacher who watched students graduate and wanted to forget their names, faces and futures as soon as they walked out the door after commencement.

As a child, he wanted to play the cello. Mind you, Logansport wasn’t exactly frothing with cello instructors in the 1920s and 1930s, so that meant traveling by train to Elkhart every week for private lessons. Between the lessons and the four hours on the train, most of his Saturdays were consumed with his passion for music. And learn to play the cello he did. In fact, he received a first place rating at the state music contest. He had a good singing voice, and that might have been because his own mother, Blanche, was a church choir director.

For whatever reasons, Joe loved music. When it came time for him to choose a college, he was not content with anything less than Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. In the era when Joe attended college there, Ohio State already had a music school, but Capital had a virtual music conservatory. Joe excelled in both instrumental and vocal music, and that prepared him for a return to Logansport High School where he would eventually serve as administrator of music.

Over the years, I’ve had several people tell me they watched the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and compared Richard Dreyfuss’ performance as a high school music teacher to  Joe’s life. The fact of the matter is that Joe’s life  would have  made a better movie. Like millions from what Tom Brokaw aptly described as “The Greatest Generation,” Joe served in World War II. At one point, he had a chance to meet and be photographed with comedian Bob Hope. That picture would become one of his most prized possessions for the rest of his life.

His most prized possession of all was a young girl from North Carolina he met while stationed in the South. He did something so irrational and impulsive he would probably never have recommended that any of his students or own children do it. After knowing her for just a few weeks, he proposed, married her and whisked her away from Dixie to a life north of the Mason-Dixon line in Logansport. Whether it was love at first sight, the war or simply meant to be, his marriage to the former Virginia Giles lasted more than 50 years and would have lasted longer had she not passed away over a decade ago. Logansport was graced with generations of southern cooking and hospitality as a result.

When the war was over and Joe returned to Logansport, he could never be content with just having an average choir or band, or directing music that either didn’t  challenge students or inspire them to think about the meaning and appreciation of really good music. He couldn’t be content with just singing Christmas music. He directed Handel’s “The Messiah” for 25 years and was never paid a dime for conducting a community choir. He could never be content with just going through the motions of having a swing choir. Many of his swing choirs were well-polished and rehearsed, and one was chosen to perform at a national music educator conference in Miami.

The same was true of his bands. Joe couldn’t be content with just having a 160-piece marching band. At one point, LHS had two concert bands and it wasn’t uncommon to have dozens of students taking  private instruction not only in high school, but in middle school. Scores of band members consumed most of the seating at the south end of Logansport’s old gymnasium and most of the west end of the current one. The quality of the band program became the worst-kept secret in the country when a writer from The New Yorker dispatched to Indiana to write about basketball came to Logansport and was impressed with the band. He even quoted one basketball fan, who said “the school is known for its music department.”

That also let out the secret that many of Joe’s students and former students had known for years: Joe led his own parade and there were scores of students who loved either music, LHS or him enough to follow him. In many cases, those students loved all three.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment to him is that many of his  students pursued careers in music or at least had an ingredient in their character or professionalism that was pure Joe Huffman extract: The essence of never being content with anything less than  the best you can do.