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A Leader’s Legacy

Loved ones reflect on the life of former high school band director Robert McCleaster
The McCleaster family/used with permission
The North Canton High School band performs under the direction of Mr. Robert McCleaster, who became band director in 1963 and remained so for 31 years.

The band program at Hoover has been a source of musical inspiration for multiple generations in the North Canton community. Former band director of the distinguished program who brought it to prominence, Mr. Robert McCleaster passed away on Jan. 31 at the age of 83.

McCleaster was the director of the Hoover band program for 31 years, according to his obituary. The current Hoover band director, Mr. Ronald C. Varn, took over for Mr. McCleaster in 2000 and stated McCleaster’s importance to the program.

“He (McCleaster) took it over in 1969 and started a tradition of excellent sportsmanship and a great family atmosphere,” he said.

The McCleaster tenure as director started many traditions that are still felt throughout the band program today whether it be the musical choices in concert season or the emergence of the “Tradition of Excellence” moniker seen in the marching band today.

Mr. McCleaster directs students during band during his tenure. (The McCleaster Family/used with permission)

“(McCleaster liked) Traditional band and orchestra music, and some pop music,” Varn said. “We continue to give very diverse styles of music.”

The ever-musically inclined McCleaster also had his favorite pieces of music to play, both as a conductor and musician throughout his lifelong career in music. Throughout his career, he played many different styles of music but enjoyed modern 20th-century composers.

“One (piece of music) that he loved to play is Festive Overture by (Russian composer) Dimitri Shostakovich,” Varn said.

Mr. McCleaster’s wife, Mrs. Lisa McCleaster, also followed in the musical footsteps of her husband. Her husband’s love for music started at a young age and became a talented performer by the time he graduated both high school and college.

Mr. McCleaster was inducted into the North Canton Alumni Association Hall of Distinction in 2015.

“Bob started piano and violin when he was barely older than a toddler,” she said. “He was in school groups: choirs, orchestra and band. He performed in countless recitals and programs. He took lessons and practiced faithfully.”

After inheriting vast amounts of musical knowledge, Mr. McCleaster would go on to perform for many groups throughout his career and after retirement from band director in 2000.

“Bob played in numerous musical groups in Northeastern Ohio; singing, playing trumpet, piano, French horn, filling in on organ and playing bells, singing in the choir at our church, and giving music lessons,” Mrs. McCleaster said.

Mr. McCleaster had a deep love for music that started from his very discovery of musical instruments at a young age. His love for music allowed him to connect with countless students and even close friends and family.

“Bob’s greatest joy as a band director was to share and teach the love of music to his students,” Mrs. McCleaster said. “He was always grateful that his career was made up of things he loved to do. Bob taught me a lot about classical music and the importance of music education in our schools.”

Mr. McCleaster went on to have many students throughout his 31 years at Hoover and other positions as a lesson instructor. One of those students was Ms. Denise Marrah, a 1986 Hoover graduate, and band member for all four years in high school. She played clarinet and spoke on the importance of how Mr. McCleaster helped her improve her musical capabilities.

Mr. McCleaster and his family pose with band directors Mr. Ron and Mrs. Ellen Varn during a football game.

“He had very high expectations,” she said. “He was a little scary at times, especially as a new band member. He was a little intimidating, but once you got to know him he was great to be around. But he had no problem calling someone out, he wanted people to take it a little seriously to be the best. I learned how, if I set my mind to it, I can achieve it. I practiced a ton, my sophomore year I ended up in the symphonic band second chair and junior year first chair. And Mr. McCleaster had a big part of that encouraging and believing in me.”

As band director, Mr. McCleaster also led the Hoover Symphonic Band to many performances outside of the confines of North Canton. Under his tenure, the band would go to Disney and Ocean City. In their 1985 performance at Ocean City, Marrah had a vital clarinet solo for their performance and is among her most memorable memories in the Hoover band program.

“My junior year, we went to Ocean City for a band competition,” she said. “I had a solo in one of our pieces, and when rehearsing before the performance, I squeaked in my solo and he gave me a look that told me that it was okay. And then I did it perfectly for the performance with a concert hall full of people and he gave me a wink.”

Marching band season was also a time for Mr. McCleaster to teach his students. While being a stressful experience at times, the times spent at Camp Wakanda for band camp and the rest of marching season are unforgettable for former band members such as Marrah.

“Band camp memories of him being out there with his megaphone, trying to get us all in order, yelling at us,” she said. “He had a lot on his plate my freshman year, as my class was the first freshman class allowed to march, but band camp was the best.”

Mr. McCleaster would go on to retire after 31 illustrious years with the Hoover instrumental music program, leaving the helm for Mr. Varn. Varn would go on to use the foundation built by Mr. McCleaster to ease the marching band into becoming an OMEA competition band after being primarily a halftime show band — and would see many of the same successes in the times with Mr. McCleaster.

“When he first retired from Hoover,” Mrs. McCleaster said. “He did some substitute teaching, tuned pianos, and played in local community bands. Bob’s favorite hobby was flying. He had a Mooney Super 21 (four-seater) airplane. He was also into boating, golf, snow skiing, and water skiing.”

The importance of Mr. McCleaster to the North Canton community can not be understated, as he taught many students, and succeeded to help expand the band program to what it is today. His memory will be remembered by all of his former students and friends.

The Varns speak with Mr. McCleaster. The former band director graduated from NOCA High School in 1943.
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Ben Hollis
Ben Hollis, Chief of OP-ED
Hello! My name is Ben and this is my second year on staff. I am the local Chocolate Milk Connoisseur of this joint.