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The vest at rest: Longtime band director Jeff Gottwig will retire this year

On a recent Thursday morning, a group of Farmington High School freshmen finally got a chance to learn some of the truth behind the stories they’d heard all year long.

What are broccoli Wednesdays? Does Gottwig really like ferns? And what’s the deal with the vest, anyway?

At the start of their school day, the students asked those questions and more of the man who has been at the heart of the FHS band program nearly twice as long as they have been alive. There won’t be many more chances. Gottwig’s 30th year as Farmington’s band director will also be his last.

Ask just about anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you Gottwig’s retirement will be a loss for FHS. Gottwig had a reputation for turning out excellent musicians, but also for connecting with students on subjects that have nothing to do with trumpets and tubas. If he’d been teaching those freshmen the rest of this year, he would have played a game of telephone with them last fall. It’s something he did to teach students about how rumors can spread and be distorted. That’s where the Gottwig likes ferns story came from, the twisted result of an original message Gottwig himself no longer remembers. Another year, Gottwig’s “Frogs play piccolos” transformed into “Gottwig looks hot in purple.”

Gottwig also used to ask his freshmen to write their own obituaries, then hand them back their senior year so they could compare the person they’d become in four years to the person they’d imagined.

For Gottwig, music was as often as not a tool to reach out to students.

“That’s really the main reason we’re there, is to make them better people,” Gottwig said. “You at least try to get them to think about it.”

That Gottwig ended up in Farmington, that he became a band teacher at all, is kind of the result of a series of happy accidents. He’d always been into music growing up in Oregon, but he hadn’t really planned to make it his life. Then one day he was 10 minutes late for class at Mount Hood Community college when he walked out the door as an Army recruiter was walking up. The recruiter sold him on the Army band, and Gottwig spent six years playing music around the country and around the world.

“If I’d been on time, I’d never have seen that recruiter going door to door,” he said.

Gottwig was supposed to be stationed in Heidelberg, Germany for his second tour, but at the last minute he was rerouted to Berlin, where the band was looking for a replacement trumpet player. It wasn’t where he wanted to be, but Berlin turned out to be where he met his wife, Cheryl, another Army band member. It’s also where he discovered a love of teaching.

Gottwig’s first teaching experience came when he answered an ad for a band director at the American high school in Berlin. The director there was going on maternity leave, and Gottwig ended up writing marching band drills for 45 musicians. The end of the show featured the students spelling out BMB for Berlin Marching Band, but when he lost 15 students to their parents’ leaves, he had to cut a letter. He went with BM.

It was an early example of Gottwig’s sense of humor coming through in the classroom.

After their enlistments were over, Gottwig followed Cheryl back to Minnesota. He finished college here and started looking for a job. He found one at St. Agnes, a private school in St. Paul, but the day before he was supposed to sign his contract Farmington High School principal Tom Roloff called him. The school was looking for a one-year band director because another teacher was taking a leave. Gottwig said he was signing a contract at 9 the next morning, and Roloff told him to come in at 7. Gottwig figures he had the job before he ever walked in the door.

Giving up a full-time job for a position with an end date might seem strange, but it was an easy decision for Gottwig.

“(Farmington) had everything I wanted,” he said. “It had marching band. It had concert band. It had jazz band. At St. Agnes, jazz was the Devil’s music.

“To me, the experience of teaching in a public school and having all of the elements I wanted was better.”

It worked out, too. The director Gottwig was filling in for never returned to the job, and Gottwig has been in Farmington ever since.

The program has changed plenty since then. When Gottwig started, Farmington High School had 400 students total. This year there are 380 just in the band programs. Marching band has gone from a curricular class to a co-curricular activity and started developing a field show to complement its parade performances.

Last fall, the band’s show was called Respect the Vest, a tribute to Gottwig and the black vest he has owned — and worn regularly — since the start of his teaching career.

Gottwig lost the freshman class to the middle school for a while, then got it back. And he’s fought several times over the years to protect the fifth grade band program from budget cuts.

Now, as he prepares for retirement, Gottwig is comfortable with what he’s leaving behind. He directed his last concert May 26, and directed the wind ensemble at Farmington’s Memorial Day ceremony for the last time Monday.

He has made connections with many of his students over the years, and many of them have made trips back to see him as his career reaches an end.

“Every once in awhile somebody will be standing at my door with their kids, and I’ll look up and it will be somebody I had 30 years ago,” he said.

Gottwig, who loves to travel, will begin his retirement with a weekend at a North Shore lighthouse, a gift from last year’s senior class. He has a full schedule of teaching band camps through the rest of June, but in July he and his wife will camp in the Oregon mountains.

He may even retire that vest.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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