Alma Lindl remembers nearly every performance and practice with the Catholic Youth Organization Emerald Knights Band and Guard of Kenosha, and later, the swing band, from its inception in 1939 until she stopped playing around 1950. She does not intend to play in the group’s 75th season and reunion on June 30, however.
“The lip is just not there anymore,” laughed the 87-year-old former trumpeter. “I started in eighth grade and was the only girl for a long time. My sister, Agnes, played the drums four years after me and was the only girl, too.”
Harmonious notes from the band’s 38 instruments sounded in rehearsal when Peter Niccolai raised his baton for the first time in March 1939. At that time, musicians from Kenosha’s 10 parishes were represented: Holy Rosary, Mount Carmel, St. Anthony, St. Casmir, St. George, St. James, St. Mark, St. Mary, St. Peter and St. Thomas. The band’s first performance was June 25, 1939, at St. George School.
The band, begun with the approval of then-Archbishop Samuel A. Stritch, who had appointed Francis (Si) Morgan as the CYO liaison, was the only one of its type in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
“Cardinal Stritch used to say that the CYO Band was his band,” said Bernie (Bernadette) Lasky, daughter of Morgan, who managed the band for 25 years. “I was 5 when the band started, and followed the band everywhere. We had flagpoles along the living room wall, music and band equipment everywhere in the house. I was always with my dad and was the little girl running around.”
‘Our lives were the band’
Lasky, 80, joined the band at 13, playing French horn, sitting next to Peter Niccolai’s son, Frank (Fritz); eventually, all of Peter Niccolai’s children and many grandchildren joined.
“I remember that there were 20 boys in the band who went to serve in the war,” she said. “My father insisted we pray for them every day. He wrote to them on a regular basis and when they all came back safe, they played in the band with us. Our lives were the band. We had no summer vacations because all of our time was spent working with the band. I didn’t mind it though; it was lots of fun and the best time was when all the boys came home from the war.”
Youth connected through music
Young musicians enjoyed performing in a group where age and gender were not a barrier, something unheard of in the late 1930s and early ‘40s.
“We all belonged and learned music, and we didn’t think anything of the fact that we were all different ages, or that girls were playing traditionally ‘boy’ instruments,” said Lindl. “We just really learned to play better, and the CYO was important in helping us achieve that goal. Most of the kids were Catholic, but there were plenty of others, too; it didn’t matter, we all connected through our music.”
Because of the strict instruction from Peter Niccolai, most of the students sat first chair in their high school bands.
“I had such a great appreciation of the lessons taught from Mr. Pete, and although he was a stickler for details, he could be fun,” said Lindl. “He would describe a section in our music that was ppp or pianissimo, but we often didn’t get it quite right. So, he would then say, ‘I told you that pianissimo must be very quiet … that is a whole can of those p’s in there!’”
After fundraising efforts, the band received its first uniforms – Kelly green and white – the colors in which hundreds of young musicians have marched since 1941.
“We sold tickets because we sponsored the Knute Rockne movie and sold them out in the cold,” said Lindl, adding, “but we earned enough to get our beautiful uniforms for doing that. We marched the 5-Mile parade in them.”
The CYO junior band was formed in 1940 to prepare students to perform in the senior band. In the beginning, the average CYO band members were high school aged musicians, but some, like Bernie, remained in the band after marriage.
After 12 years serving as musical director and instructor, Peter Niccolai turned the baton over to son Frank, who guided the musicians for the next eight years. Later directors would include Gerald Jacoby, Carl Spielman, Elmer Aiello, John Bunic, Richard Kreuzer, Keith Kubert, Gerald Hoffman, Gary Everett and current director Geoff Poole.
The CYO band peaked in the mid 1960s with membership topping 205 students in Senior Band, Cadet Band and Junior Cadet Band. Additionally, there was a 22-piece CYO Stage Band comprised of Senior Band members.
Grandson followed musical path
Numerous musicians went on to professional musical careers, including Peter Niccolai’s grandson, Jack, who recently retired as band director of Salem Grade School and currently teaches music at St. Alphonsus Grade School in New Munster. In addition, he is a trumpeter in the Waukegan-based group Jazz Wave Big Band.
“The best musicians seemed to be recruited from Grandpa’s kids and they all had an instrument in their hands,” said Jack. “He filled in the sections with his kids. My dad played French horn and my uncle played trumpet. He had one baritone, a tuba player, clarinet and family in the color guard; and he shuffled the kids all around. My grandpa was quite the musical taskmaster, but I wish I could have heard him play as I heard he was phenomenal.”
Band members become family
Citing the band as a great foundation for aspiring musicians, Jack said the structure of the organization is different from any band he has worked.
“A lot of bands now are extremely competitive and run practices every night and are vying for trophies and notoriety,” he explained. “The CYO was more of a family and when I joined the band, I felt like I was where I was supposed to be. There was no judgment during missing a step during formation or playing a wrong note in a concert. We were all there for the love of music and to spend time together. It put me in a position as a band director to not be too competitive and to teach my kids that what they do should be because they love it, and not because they want to do it better than anyone else. You are to congratulate those who play better than anyone else, because you are good and you know how hard it is.”
Numbers up in current band
Poole enjoys working with the young and helping them to develop a love of music.
“It is going well and the kids are doing a nice job,” he said of the band with about 20 members. “This year our numbers are up and we are retaining older kids, and they are all taking to the music well. Our first parade of the season was June 9 in Darlington.”
For Andrew Verenski, who just finished sixth grade at All Saints in Kenosha, his past two years in the band have been enjoyable and a learning experience.
“It is really fun and not strict at practice,” he explained. “It is a great group and I have made new friends here. This band has made me a better player because I used to have a hard time with the high notes, but now I can play them without thinking about it. Without this band, my summer would be boring. We can mess around a bit, but Mr. Poole gets us back on track.”
As president of the CYO Band, Jenny Rimkus, whose 13-year-old son Adam is in the band, is hopeful for a large turnout for the Mass, parade and luncheon.
“We are hoping for about 200 people and hope that our alumni will want to perform in the parade,” she said. “We have a flat bed trailer for members who don’t want to or are unable to walk.”
“The band is such a good outlet for our area youth,” Rimkus said. “I hope more people will consider sending their children to this excellent organization. It really helped my son blossom, by being in this marching band, and I would recommend it to anyone.”