Unsung hero: Mr. Z goes to Washington | RecordCourier.com
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Unsung hero: Mr. Z goes to Washington

by Nancy Hamlett

He can be tough, exacting and a workaholic, but to the students in the Douglas High School Band, Bill Zabelsky is a hero.

Affectionately called Mr. Z or just “Z” by the students, Zabelsky pulled off a coup by campaigning for the Douglas High School Fighting Tigers Marching Band to earn an invitation to perform at the Presidential Inauguration.

The process started months ago, long before anyone knew the outcome of the presidential election. Zabelsky initiated a letter-writing campaign to congressmen, senators and governor, as well as both presidential candidates, to have the band considered.

“Both Al Gore and George Bush responded with ‘Thanks, but it is too early for inauguration plans,'” said Zabelsky. “However (Sen.) Harry Reid recommended us to the Armed Services Inauguration Committee, which does all the preliminary screening and then meets with the Presidential Inauguration committee.”

The committee sent Zabelsky a lengthy questionnaire, asking not only about the band’s awards and special performances, but also the color of the uniforms and what formations it used. Zabelsky returned the questionnaire with videotape of the band in action at the Nevada Day Parade and the Tournament of Champions in Fairfield, Calif., and audiotapes of the band performing “Thunder” and “The Magnificent Seven.” He crossed his fingers for luck.

Christmas vacation started and, while the nation waited for the outcome of ballot recounts and court battles over chads, Zabelsky said he thought that the band’s chances were becoming slim.

“The questionnaire had asked for the last date we could be notified in order to allow for fund-raising,” said Zabelsky. “I said Dec. 15, and we didn’t even know who was going to be president then.”

On Dec. 22, all of Zabelsky’s plans came to fruition. He received a phone call from the inauguration committee announcing that the Fighting Tigers were selected.

“Anytime someone calls you with this kind of news, you need to be sitting down,” said Zabelsky. “I didn’t believe it at first. Over 100 bands applied. And then, all I could think of was this huge amount of money we had to raise, and quickly.”

Zabelsky is amazed at the speed that the community answered the band’s call for help. The band leaves today for another milestone in the band’s accomplishments, with two of Zabelsky’s daughters as members. Amy is the drum major and Sara is in the flag corps and plays flute. Another daughter, Jennifer, is a 1999 DHS graduate and a music education major at UNR.

The climb to success started from very meager beginnings for both Zabelsky and the band.

Raised in the Pittsburgh, Pa., area, Zabelsky started playing trumpet in the 5th grade band. He continued with music through high school, meeting his wife, Leslie, at band practice.

“It was a band romance,” said Zabelsky. “She was a sophomore, first chair flute, and I was a senior, first chair trumpet.”

Zabelsky attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh as a music education major. After graduation, however, jobs were difficult to find. Substitute teaching was sporadic and he worked as an industrial chemical salesman, all the while applying for jobs that were located for him through a music teacher employment agency.

“Most of the time, I’d be notified about an opening after it was already filled. Then I heard about a job in Douglas County,” said Zabelsky.

Although he had never been west of the Mississippi River, Zabelsky flew out for an interview at Gardnerville Elementary School in February and started the job March 1, 1979. He was at GES for six years before starting at the high school in 1985.

“That was the worst year I ever had,” said Zabelsky. “The kids were used to band directors coming and going, like through a revolving door. I had 12 kids in the band, 19 in the choir, and I had to teach four classes of general science. I am the worst science teacher in the U.S. I dreaded going to school every day.”

He vowed to improve the music department.

“I outwardly recruited the middle school for high school band by promising them the world,” said Zabelsky. “The next year, we had 37 band members, got the new uniforms I promised and started entering competitions and bringing home the trophies.”

Every year, the band’s reputation grew, often by following the old adage, practice makes perfect. Zabelsky schedules practices before school, after school and during the evening. While prepping for competitions and the Inaugural ceremonies, Saturday practices are the norm.

“The kids are wonderful, the parents supportive, and they take pride in what happens to the band,” said Zabelsky. “The band has a history of success, and the kids want to maintain that. We’ve placed tops in the Nevada Day Parade for years, and this year, when I told the kids that the string of wins had to end sometime, they said, ‘Not on my watch.’ They work hard and are very dedicated.”

Zabelsky was responsible for the formation of the Madrigals in 1987.

“I think the Madrigals was another way for Hal Butler (then principal at DHS) to get rid of the worst science teacher,” said Zabelsky. “The Madrigals was made up of only girls at first. By this time, I was also teaching a speech class. I’d listen to the boys with good voices and tell them they needed a fine arts credit to graduate. They needed to be in the Madrigals.”

An audition is now required to join the Madrigals, and last year the band marched 90 students, the most ever. The price hasn’t been easy, 13 years of hard work and dedication.

“Some people argue that I get a stipend to work after-school hours with the band and Madrigals, and I do,” said Zabelsky. “However, last year the stipend averaged out to $2.82 per hour. Obviously, I’m not in it for the money. The kids come first, and I want a good program for them. The kids then put in the time and the effort.”