You know, the job you thought would last a lifetime? I sure remember mine! As college graduation approached, me with a newly printed Masters Degree in hand, and a wife with new baby at home, I faced the immediate reality of needing to find a job, quickly. I’m afraid my rock band days weren’t going to cut it financially! Yep, that’s me on the top right with all the hair, holding my trumpet.
While everyone else was pounding the tread-worn pavements of the Buffalo school system, I decided to cast a wider net. So, I prepared a cover letter and sent it out to schools that were advertising for Music teachers in the Chronicle of Higher Education. At first unsure where to start, I sat down and began the process of writing about myself. To my surprise, the words flowed easily, especially when I wrote about my graduate teaching position at the University of Buffalo, where I founded and directed the UB Jazz Orchestra. I not only arranged the music but also booked concert tours for the ensemble. And I taught college classes in Jazz Theory & Composition. Yep, that’s me waving my arms like I knew what I was doing.
Then I hit the library to look for listings in the Chronicle. There was no Internet in 1971, of course, so the library was a necessary daily visit. Over the first weeks of my job search, I found a total of three Music job postings. Here it was, already July, and baby was demanding milk and honey. Yep, that’s Mama Cass and Baby Jennifer in our Buffalo apartment.
So, I decided to send a blind cover letter to every school district within a five-state area around New York State, which amounted to literally hundreds of letters sent. This process turned out to be a valuable learning experience, and a priceless exercise in Marketing, a skill that would eventually play a very important role in my career path.
Sure enough, the first week of August I received a telephone call from the band director at a high school in southern Connecticut! Cass and I threw a packed suitcase in our little Toyota Hi-Lux and hit the road, baby Jennifer snuggled on the bench seat between driver and passenger. We arrived in Connecticut about midnight, exhausted from the long ride punctuated by several wrong turns and too many stops to consult gas station direction-givers. Jennifer slept most of the way with not a peep, which was pretty standard operating procedure for her. We found a hotel, checked in, and set the alarm for seven o’clock the next morning to give me enough time to prepare for my nine o’clock interview. Those who know me today will undoubtedly be shocked to hear that I actually shaved off my bushy beard and cut my hair to a very reasonable length in preparation for the first teaching interview in my life.
Before I even realized my head had hit the pillow, the alarm was jarring me out of bed. I wasn’t surprised to find Cass already feeding Jennifer. Cass was a cat-sleeper then, and she still is today. Fifteen minutes at a time is all the sleep her body and mind will allow her. I don’t know how she does it. I shaved, showered, and completed all the other necessary morning rituals before opening the suitcase to begin dressing for my nine o’clock appointment with the Band Director and the Board of Education members who would also be in attendance. Let’s see,
“Don’ worry, only a few minutes from da high school,” Sal enthused as he told me how to get there.
“How much do I owe you, Sal?”
“Fifty bucks oughta do it,” Sal laughed.
I had never paid more than five bucks for pants I liked, let alone for these outrageous blue, green and red checked golf pants. But again, I was in no position to bargain. I reached into my pocked . . . I reached into my pocket . . . I REACHED . . . oh, no, these weren’t even my pants! I grabbed my jeans from the floor and dug hand into pocket. Empty pocket. 8:57.
“Don’ worry ‘bout it, kid. You gonna be late . . . get outa here! You gonna pay me later. Jus’ get da job, okay?”
I stumbled out the door, flew down the road, and scrambled into the high school by 9:02 AM. Not too bad, I guessed. I barged into the school office, huffing and puffing, facing a friendly enough looking crowd of people enjoying their morning coffee and doughnuts. Alex, the band director who had called and invited me here, got up, walked over to me, smiled, shook my hand, and said, “You must be Jeff. Welcome to our school.”
“Thank you, I’m sorry I’m late, but . . .” I stammered breathlessly.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Just relax,” he comforted me, one hand on my shoulder. Then, stepping in front of me, he leaned close and whispered in my ear, “but I think it might be a good idea if you zipped up your fly.”
‘Oh . . . my . . . God . . . I . . . can’t . . . believe . . . this . . . is . . . happening!’
Thankfully, Alex stood protectively in front of me while I turned around and zipped up, my audience chuckling with me, not at me. I think. The president of the Board of Education broke the ice by saying, “Jeff, I’m sorry, but those are without a doubt the ugliest pants I’ve ever seen.” Red-faced though I must have been, I took solace from her conspiratorial smile. Everyone enjoyed a gentle chuckle as I recounted my morning. I would find out later that Sal, the pro shop owner, was her husband. And another board member published the local newspaper, so this story was destined to make the community headlines . . . which it soon did.
We met and talked for about two hours, covering a wide range of topics from my experience to my goals to my family, Cass and Jennifer waiting ever so patiently at the hotel in isolation, since I had the car. The board members departed with handshakes all around so I would have a chance to talk with Alex alone.
“Are you retiring from your band director position, Alex?” I asked innocently.
He feigned surprise. “No. Why do you ask?”
“I just assumed you’re here to interview your replacement,” I answered, hoping to cover my tracks in case I had asked the wrong question.
“No, no, no, that’s not why I want to bring you here, Jeff. I won’t be ready to retire for a couple more years. I want you here as a magnet.”
“Yes, a magnet. You see, many of our students are dropping out of school because we’re not giving them good enough reason to stay. Unfortunately, some of these kids are our best and brightest. I want you, my young friend, to be their reason to come back to school and stay the duration.”
I sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb what I had just been told, which was very far removed from what I expected to hear in my first interview.
“And what makes you think I could be that magnet?” I probed.
“Look, Jeff, I won’t beat around the bush. These kids are talented. They need someone close to their own age, someone with a solid background in their own music, someone to look up to,” he explained, quickly adding, “someone other than their old band director. I’ve read your resume, and I’ve talked with your references at UB. They told me I’d be crazy not to hire you. So, if you want it, this job is yours for the taking.”
“I’ll take it!”
Alex stood and we shook hands in agreement. Salary? That was the farthest thing from my mind and I didn’t even know enough to ask!
“I can’t tell you how happy I am you’ll be joining us, Jeff. Speaking of which, school starts in two weeks. Can you get here that fast?”
“I’ll be here!” I answered, not bothering to think about finding a place to live, then driving home to pack up our little apartment, leaving one life for another in such a short span of two weeks. But that’s one advantage of youth. You think you can do anything you say you can do. After meeting with the payroll supervisor to sign my contract, I drove back to the hotel, on cloud nine, arriving in our room to find a frantic wife worried sick about where I had been for so long and what might have happened to me along the way. Jennifer was napping in the portable crib we had brought with us, so Cass and I had the time to share my morning’s events. She, like me, was thrilled at the opportunity. Unlike me, she was the practical one on this team, and the thought of moving so far from her parents weighed on her mind heavily. You see, she had never been away from Buffalo. In fact, the first time she left home at all was when we married and went on our one-week Florida honeymoon. When I told her the $8,500 salary I had been offered and had accepted, we both thought we’d be rich. We soon found out that New Haven, Connecticut was nothing like Buffalo, New York, when it came to cost of living.
After looking at dozens of apartments in town and nearby, we quickly realized that we couldn’t afford to spend 80% of my salary on rent! So, we extended the radius of our search, eventually finding a nice apartment, albeit in farm country an hour north of the school where I would be teaching. We grabbed it, signed the lease, and drove back to Buffalo to pack our things and say our goodbyes.
I confide that the coming year proved very difficult for this young couple. While I may have complained about spending two hours every day driving to and from school, Cass was indeed the brave one, imprisoned in an apartment in rural Connecticut, with a baby, no money, no friends, and no car. Yep, that’s Jennifer again, always smiling, in our Connecticut apartment.
What Cass would face that year had never even crossed my mind. In 1971, the times still dictated that the husband was expected to make the career decisions and go to work, while the wife was expected to do whatever was necessary to hold the family together. Looking back, I had married a saint. We made it through the year, more through her efforts than mine.