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Band Legend Norvell dies at 86

by Bill Felber, Executive Editor

Larry Norvell didn’t create the music program at Manhattan High School or the Manhattan Municipal Band program.  But over his long tenures as director, he infused both with statewide distinction.  The most prominent figure in music here for the past half century, Mr. Norvell died at Mercy Regional Health Center Thursday.  He was 86.

His death comes just a few days before the Municipal Band takes the stage for another of the July 4 concerts that became his trademark.  Anyone who attended the Independence Day concerts at the City Park band shell over Lawrence Norvell’s 45-year term as band director — and thousands did — felt the passion he brought to the occasions reverberate throughout City Park.  So widely recognized was his role in the community’s musical culture that when the city dedicated its new band shell in 2004, there was little consideration given to naming it after anybody except Larry Norvell.

Born Jan. 13, 1920, in West Medford, Mass., Mr. Norvell came to Manhattan in 1949, accepting an appointment as the new music teacher at Manhattan High.  He didn’t have much to work with.  “I told my wife (after the interview) I was afraid they were going to hire me,” he said in a 1985 interview.  A teacher at tiny Moran High School at the time, he actually left a larger band than the 55-person aggregation he inherited at MHS.  “The program was at rock bottom,” he said.

From that core of 55, Norvell built the MHS band up to something more befitting one of the state’s larger schools.   “He had a wonderful interaction with the students,” observed John Boyd, an MHS alum who rose to become a college director of bands.  “He cared for everyone.”

Mr. Norvell retired at age 65 in 1985, his students having won uncounted awards and recognitions.

Even then, though, he continued to pursue his second musical career, as director of the municipal band.  He had come to that position essentially as a direct outgrowth of his status at MHS, recruiting musicians over the years from the ranks of his former students for the series of summer concerts.

His philosophy was simple, “play for the people,” and that’s what he did.  Norvell-led concerts were heavy on popular favorites, show tunes and patriotic fare. That was at no time more true than in the July 4 concerts, which at mid-season often drew the largest crowds.  Hundreds would haul lawn chairs to surround the outdated enclosure in City Park and listen to renditions of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and other staples of the Norvell program.

Frank Tracz, the current municipal band director, said the program for Tuesday’s 6:30 p.m. concert would be modified as sort of a tribute to the long-time director.  Among Norvell favorites that will be added: “The Navy Hymn,” “America the Beautiful” and “The Larry Norvell March,” a tribute written by pupil Steve Easterday.  The concert will be at CiCo Park as part of the city’s holiday observance.

When he retired as municipal band director in 1994 — after 45 years — even Norvell had to marvel at the gains he had overseen.  “It’s become such a tremendously professional group,” he said at the time.  Even though he left as irector, he kept a promise to return periodically as a guest conductor.

Mr. Norvell received his degree in education from Emporia State Teachers College in 1942, then joined the Navy and became a sonar officer in the South Pacific during World War II.  He received the Silver Star and five Bronze stars.  He was inducted into the Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame in 1997.

Irvin Parkview Funeral Home is handling arrangements.