Lunch with Mr. Bogard

or, How a 10-Second Conversation Changed My Life

Note: Growing up in Imperial, Phil Goddard was inspired by a band teacher who taught at Chase County High School for four years. “He was the reason I became a teacher,” said Goddard. “I’m in my 50s now, and hadn’t seen or spoken to him in 36 years. Last summer, I tracked him down and invited him to lunch.”

This is his story.

“The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Phil Goddard
I grew up in in the 70s and 80s in Imperial, Nebraska.  It was, and is, the very definition of ‘rural’.  My extended family had deep roots in the town and, now in my 50’s, I look back fondly and with pride at my experience there.

My two older brothers are brilliant.  One has a doctorate in something called ‘number theory’ and attended MIT for a time.  The other attended UNL, got an engineering degree and proceeded to take jobs working on the space shuttle program and the global positioning system in its infancy.

I had neither the aptitude nor desire for math or science in school.  I struggled in both.  Language was my forte and I excelled in classes that required me to write and speak (thanks, Mrs. Howard).  But because my older brothers had been sharp in areas that involved numbers, I felt pressure from family and teachers to follow those footsteps.

I couldn’t.  And, without evidence of superior athletic ability, I was a bit lost in this place that lacked, I thought at the time, an appreciation for anything other than strong sports teams and high grain prices.

Not a Milquetoast

In 1977, at the age of 10, I started school band playing cornet with an understated but very competent teacher, Mr. Bragg.  I discovered I had a knack for the endeavor and quickly took to it in a “duck-to-water” sort of way.  

The summer before my 7th-grade year Mr. Bragg left the profession and a new teacher would greet us the following year.  

Mr. Bogard was a first-year teacher from the University of Wyoming.  He was young, energetic, abrasive, funny, rebellious and would not let anyone question his authority, status or ability.  From the moment the school year started, he exuded the personality of someone who demanded to be listened-to, reckoned-with and, in no uncertain terms, lived his life unapologetically.  Band was certainly not going to be a Milquetoast, soft, artsy pastime.  

For a young man in my situation at that time and place, nothing more important could have happened in my life.  Participation in the program grew quickly.  Other students obviously felt the same way and soon the program in that tiny town boasted over half the student body.  By the time I was a freshman, 109 of the 205 students in our high  school were in band.

Our marching band had gained an enviable reputation and was consistently winning competitions.  My freshman year we would win first-place trophies adorned with statues of a drum majorette raising a mace and sporting a Q-tip hat.

A Life-Defining Moment

At the end of my freshman year, Mr. Bogard asked me into his office.  The drum majorette was a graduating senior and he said that he was wanting to take a fresh look at the position. “Philip, I’m looking for a specific personality to lead the marching band next year.  I like your attitude and confidence and I want you to lead the Band. Would you consider being the drum major?”

This 10-second conversation, unbeknownst to Mr. Bogard or me, changed my life forever.

In August, I was fitted with a new uniform, cowboy hat (our mascot was the Longhorns), and white gloves with Calvary-style leather gauntlets. I stood on a large wooden box to direct the band on the field. I led the marching and pep bands and had the authority to conduct as I saw fit.  I had 100 instruments playing at once, under my direction… I was hooked (I recommend to the reader that you try it sometime).  

I had found my calling and it was, in every sense of the phrase, life-changing.  We won every competition that year.  I took solos to contests and was part of amazing small and large ensembles.  It was a very big year and, as former classmates can attest, so was my ego.

Music Becomes a Career

Mr. Bogard left at the end of that year.  In hindsight, it was bound to happen. I was heartbroken.

His successor was a fine teacher in his own right and an impressive person, but it was never the same.  Is it ever?

Even so, I continued making band a part of my life. I attended Hastings College and majored in instrumental music.  I landed a job at a small school in Kansas to start my career.  Like most first-year teachers I had lots of energy and made lots of mistakes.  

I re-connected with my high-school sweetheart and left Kansas after two years.  We were married and moved a couple of times.  All the while I was, with two short exceptions, teaching band.

We eventually settled in Lincoln and the last 20 years I’ve been the band director at Milford Public Schools west of Lincoln — a rural school roughly the size of the one I attended in Imperial.  The high school band has grown to well more than 100 students and we have nearly 100 percent participation in the elementary program.  More than 1,000 Milford students have entered my classroom during my tenure.  For someone who struggles with numbers, I’m happy with that one.

Realistic Expectations

In the spring of 2019, I received a flyer from our teacher retirement system and attended a seminar explaining my options as I enter the final stages of my teaching career.  The whole experience was a bit of a psychological hit.  This whole time I’ve just been working and loving it.  Now, the profession is showing me signs of showing me the door.

During the entirety of my career, I’ve known that my time with Mr. Bogard — not seen since 1983 — has been the foundation of my career. Over the past three decades, I’ve periodically felt a strong urge to re-connect with the man who changed my life in every way.

Last summer, emboldened by the increasing speed of my professional clock ticking away, I made a firm commitment to contact him.  I heard at one point he taught in Kansas, but that’s all the information I had. However, with the use of today’s modern, stalker-friendly technology, I was able to track down his son. When I had last seen the younger Bogard, he was a toddler. Now he was days from his 40th birthday and agreed to put me in touch with his dad.

I had realistic expectations.  Imperial was his first teaching job at 22-years old and it lasted four years.  Would he remember the things I remembered? Probably not. Would he even remember me?  Probably not.  He was understandably guarded but eventually agreed to meet.

Life-Changing Occurences

I arranged what I thought would be a short lunch near his home in Kansas.  My plan was to simply tell him what had happened to me, tell him why, give him a heartfelt thank-you and get the check.

I arrived at the cafe first and got a table. Shortly after, in he walked… 36 years after the last time I saw him.  The young, brash man I remembered was in his pepper-haired 60’s now. Time had, as it does, changed both of us.

Our short lunch turned into something delightfully different.  He listened to my memories of his time in my hometown and I listened with fascination to his journey these past 36 years.  He had taught music in other places, become a school principal in later life and had recently retired.

Throughout the conversation he kept apologizing for his younger self… the occasional bad language, tantrums and lack of diplomacy.  I assured him, regardless of any youthful professional lapses, that at that point in my life I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

As we talked and enjoyed each other’s company, I saw glimpses of the man I remembered.  As I recounted occurrences that were life-changing and important in my life, his eyes would light up and he would fill in missing gaps.  It was more — much more —  than I imagined the best of circumstances would be.

‘We All Have One Person in Our Lives...’

As the day grew into mid-afternoon, they kicked us out at closing time. I expected that to be the end of our meeting, but Mr. Bogard suggested we continue talking at a local coffee shop.  They kicked us out of there at closing time as well.  Then, as they locked the door behind us, we stood outside and continued our conversation.  The whole event was extraordinary.  

Since then, we check in with each other from time to time with updates and other memories that have popped into our heads.  He emailed me this past January to let me know that he was reflecting on 2019 and that our meeting was on his list of highlights for the year. 

As this was my intention, I couldn’t be happier.

Mr. Bogard was a huge influence.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned him thousands of times in conversations with hundreds of students, friends and family.  To him, I was a fleeting memory.  To me, he was larger than life and uniquely responsible for all the joy, livelihood and professional success that I’ve experienced since I met him during my formative years in Imperial.

My guess is that we all have one person in our lives who made all the difference.  I’m convinced that, more often than not, it’s a teacher or coach.

For six hours on a hot afternoon in eastern Kansas I tried to make it clear to Mr. Bogard exactly what he meant to me and I had a great time doing it.  If the opportunity presents itself, I would, in the strongest possible way, recommend that you do the same.  If a person has made a life-changing difference to you and doesn’t know it, invite your hero to lunch.

Make no other plans that day.