Every once in a while a picture comes across my desk which catches my eye and piques my curiosity. I immediately recognized Steve Burns and taking a closer look, standing next to him was Betty White.
Yes, Betty White, the very same Betty we all know and love. The actress, comedian, product spokesperson and TV sitcom star who passed away recently at age 99. Sure enough, Steve Burns—teacher, director, musician, golfer, fisherman and hunter.
So the question is, how is it Steve got his picture taken with Betty White?
Let me tell you what I found out in a round-about way.
If you know Steve you know music has consumed his life. He told me, ”As a 4th grader I didn’t think of music as a lifelong passion, to me it was just another class. But by the 7th grade, I knew I wanted to make music my chosen career.”
Steve graduated from Imlay City in 1973 and retired a few years ago as a highly respected band director for Lapeer West High School. His marching, concert and symphony bands were known for many outstanding accomplishments.
Under the watchful eye of longtime Imlay City band director, John Cummins, Steve became one of his prized students. Imlay City and Mr. Cummins produced many of the finest musicians in Michigan.
It’s hard to have a conversation about music without John Cummins’ name coming up. Steve rattled off a list of names who became band directors, taught music or simply had the gift of music perfected by Mr. Cummins.
Of course Steve listed his late brother, Dennis, his sister-in-law, Debbie, and their work with the Imlay City Belle Valley Band. He also listed his younger brother, Gary, who organized the popular community youth band, Third Degree Burns. After that the names rolled faster than I could write them down, Joe Dobos, John Cummins Jr., John Mason, Louise Topie, Lucy D’Arcy, Cathy Nolin, Kim Deal, and John Young and there are many more.
“Mr. Cummins demanded excellence, discipline and had little patience for excuses,” Steve said.
“You always knew where you stood with Mr. Cummins. There was good music and poor music, he expected you to play great music,” he continued.
The Burns’ home was well known in the neighborhood for the incessant sounds coming from it. “Let’s just say,” as Steve explained, “our neighbors liked us better as we got older.”
“Was music a tradition in your family?” I asked.
“No, I don’t really think so. Grandma Burns played bar room piano but that’s about it,” he laughs.
“For my brothers and I, our passion began with Mr. Cummins,” Steve stated.
“Mom was another reason for our success, she was the ultimate task master,” Steve went on to say.
“Every night after dinner we were told to go to our rooms to practice for at least an hour. If she felt we were horsing around and not practicing properly she would tack on an additional 10 minutes. As we got older it became two hours, no excuses,” he continued.
Steve also recalls his parents, George and Ruth, saying, “If you want an instrument, we’ll get it for you, but it means you will not be allowed to quit. Never, ever quit!”
The Burn’s brothers made a name for themselves as musicians. They practiced when they would have rather liked to be playing with friends.
“Practice is and always has been the key to success,” Steve stated.
Practice, discipline and determination was about to pay off for Steve. In Steve’s senior year, Mr. Cummins called him to his office.
“Mr. Cummins asked me if I remembered filling out an application form for the McDonald’s All-American Marching Band,” Steve told me.
Steve remembers Mr. Cummins telling him, “Well, you made it, you’re one of only two selected from Michigan.”
“I didn’t know if I should be excited or scared. I do know he was proud and so was I,” Steve said smiling.
The McDonald’s All-American Marching Band selection committee used state band honors, audition scores and recommendations from the applications entirely. Two from each state, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, meant 104 students were selected to march and play in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California.
“McDonald’s paid for everything, flight, lodging, meals. What an experience for this Imlay City kid,” he says smiling.
Each of the state’s band members met and got pictures taken with celebrity Betty White, band director Paul Lavalle and Miss America, Laura Lee Schafer.
“At the time I just did what I was told, if it was get your picture taken, well that’s what I did,” remembers Steve.
“Paul Lavalle was there, our band director. He was also director of the Radio City Music Hall in New York, a pretty famous guy. Betty White looked familiar but I didn’t know who she was for sure,” confessed Steve.
“It was pretty fast. We said hello to each other and then the camera bulbs popped and we moved on. There wasn’t time for life altering conversation,” he said.
Steve’s next appearance as a member of McDonald’s All-American Marching Band was the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day, 1973. The route was long—seven and a half miles—with people and bleachers everywhere.
Steve remains active in music, judging seven or eight district and state band competitions a year. He also judges solo ensemble as well. It’s a tremendous commitment since some competitions require Steve to listen to and judge as many as 50 students in a day.
“Looking back, I realize what a great opportunity it was. First time flying, taxi cab rides, big city lights, palm trees and skyscrapers. I couldn’t ask for a better experience,” he recalls.
“Later, I learned my family and friends in Imlay City were all watching TV to see if they could find me in the band. It’s fun to think about those days,” he said.
A photo can bring back a lot of memories and it certainly did for Steve.
Contact Randy at email@example.com.