The cement schoolyard at St. Augustine High School, a sacred space surrounded by classrooms on three sides and by George Nick Connor Drive on the fourth, stretches about 70 yards. It is the color of well-used asphalt. White stripes, five yards apart, are a little faded, but everyone who has attended St. Augustine in the last 65 years knows what the lines represent.
When Kenneth St. Charles was a clarinet player at St. Augustine in the late 1970s, he and his 131 fellow members of the “Marching 100” – 132 was a magical number for creating geometric marching maneuvers – could close their eyes and tell you what five yards was like.
Exactly eight steps.
The “8 to 5” was the precision march drilled daily by band director Edwin Hampton, an oversized genius in music, in geometry and in life, who would climb the steps of his mobile platform, about 8 feet high, and, like Bear Bryant at an Alabama football practice, oversee what he was trying to create, something close to perfection.
“He was tough, but you knew he cared about you,” St. Charles said last week, sitting on a purple bench two strides from the cement where he learned what discipline, motivation and marching “progressions” were all about. “The summers were legendary. We’re right here where it all happened. You can see some of the stripes.”
Sitting on that purple wood bench was a special moment for St. Charles. Last Friday was his first official day serving as the new president of his alma mater, which he said helped mold him into the man he is today. At 53, St. Charles holds a doctorate in educational administration and has spent decades in development and fund-raising, having worked as vice president for institutional advancement at Xavier University of Louisiana under another legend, Dr. Norman Francis.
“Kenneth is probably the most qualified person ever for that position,” Francis said. “When he was at Xavier, we would go out to California once a year. We would meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast in the morning, and he had already run five miles.”
Thirty years in the U.S. Army Reserves – St. Charles retired as a lieutenant colonel – will do that, but so did the formative years he spent at St. Augustine under Hampton’s legendary gaze.
Hampton wasn’t much into long speeches. The asphalt had a way of driving home the point.
“Practices during the school year were three hours – longer than the football team’s,” St. Charles said, laughing. “At that time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the band was very popular and difficult to get into. The football team was winning state championships, so when you went to a St. Augustine football game, you really got your money’s worth.”
When it came to the band, the Hampton rule was no extracurricular double-dipping allowed.
“There was an agreement among the administrators that the band would take precedence, but if they couldn’t reach an agreement, the band would be first and you couldn’t be in that other group,” St. Charles said. “Mr. Hampton was the tiebreaker.”
Hampton’s summer band camp was a foreshadowing of St. Charles’ first brush with military training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“When you go to basic training, your first one or two weeks are all about drilling and getting in shape and running, and then after they teach you that, you transition into other skills,” St. Charles said. “That’s exactly the way band camp was. The first two weeks it was 90 degrees and you had people passing out. That was all about conditioning and discipline and being able to follow directions.”
That’s why St. Charles breezed through his Fort Knox training when everyone around him was falling down weak-kneed.
As much as Hampton cherished the Marching 100, St. Charles said St. Aug’s symphonic band, which practiced the classics after the Mardi Gras parade season ended, was Hampton’s pride and joy. All 132 members of the Marching 100 had to play in the symphonic band.
“The people of New Orleans loved to see the marching band, and we had all that history with the Rex parade and the Macy’s parade and the Rose Bowl parade, but his favorite was the symphonic band because he was trying to teach us about music appreciation and music history,” St. Charles said. “Mr. Hampton said many times, ‘When you go off to college and you hear the theme to “The Lone Ranger,” don’t say that’s the name of the tune. The name of that tune is the “William Tell Overture.”’ He would expose us to a lot of different things. We all had to audition to ‘March Grandioso’ (The Grand March).”
St. Aug’s 7th Ward neighbors never complained about the music reverberating off the schoolyard cement.
“When it came to a Friday or Saturday football game, before we would leave to go to the game, we would always do a run-through of our show,” St. Charles recalled, pointing to George Nick Connor Drive. “That fence over there would be lined with people watching.”
After his introduction to the student body in the gym last Friday, members of the St. Aug video club got the exclusive first interview with their new president. Jalen Hinton, a sophomore with black glasses, sat down with St. Charles on the bottom row of the wooden bleachers. St. Aug championship banners covered every inch of the walls.
Before the interview began, Mark Paul, the volunteer video club moderator, gave Hinton instructions that would have been perfectly in tune with Hampton’s direct style.
“Think of three questions and then tell him what you’re going to ask him – don’t blindside him,” Paul said, firmly.
The interview went like clockwork. St. Charles, St. Augustine Class of ’81, had to be thinking: 35 years ago, I was Jalen Hinton.
And now, St. Charles has the responsibility of carrying the torch forward for the school that changed his life.
“St. Augustine is a beacon,” St. Charles said. “It’s instrumental to this city. This school produces leaders. Some of these young men may have challenges financially or some type of economic or social challenges. But we prepare young men to be successful, and that’s what the city needs.”
The grand march continues.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.