Cal-Nevada's "Music Man" delivers

July 26, 2007

It wasn’t just a vision of a band that Sarge Wright, a benevolent version of Professor Harold Hill, carried with him to New Orleans: it was the reality of it. Maybe not 76 trombones, “a hundred and ten” cornets … but close enough: 125 band instruments in all, destined to be polished and played by middle school students whose own instruments and musical dreams were, as Sarge puts it, “swept away” in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.


The 86-year-old Wright – a chaplain, retired clergy member in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, and member of the Carmichael Kiwanis Club – enlisted the aid of fellow UMs and Kiwanians to collect the instruments for the Karnofsky Project, launched by a retired postal inspector from Metairie, Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina. Trent Strasburg , who plays trombone in the New Orleans Concert Band, named the project for a Russian immigrant to the Crescent City who bought a used cornet for a young man who helped him make deliveries.


“He gave it to Louis Armstrong,” The New Orleans Times-Picayune quotes Strasburg as saying, “who turned out to be a pretty good cornet player.”


The instruments donated here were shipped to New Orleans at no charge by AFB Trucking Company of Sacramento. June 7, Sarge Wright personally presented them to middle school officials at the North Rampart Street Community Center, formerly known as St. Mark’s Community Center.


Wright says many United Methodist Volunteers in Mission groups stay there while laboring in the city to restore and rebuild what the hurricane destroyed. A gymnasium and indoor swimming pool at the center were, Wright says, made possible by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church many years ago. He notes that the center “escaped with little damage” from the storm and now serves the children and youth of the area adjacent to Bourbon Street. In fitting New Orleans fashion, Wright says the youths celebrated the donation of the instruments by using some of them to play “a rousing rendition” of “When the Saints Go Marching In” during the presentation.


That the instruments could be simply picked up and played on the spot is a tribute to the condition in which they were given.


“The band leaders and officials of the city were … gratified for the excellent condition of many instruments which were immediately usable even after years of use or storage in a closet somewhere,” Wright notes.


Saying, “All of these instruments have a story,” Wright showed the young people some of those he considers especially meaningful: a clarinet donated by the wife of a man who played with Miles Davis, for instance, and a saxophone given by the father of a young sax player who died in a car accident, in memory of his son. The instruments already have been put to use at the community center’s summer camp and will be used in its after-school program in the fall. Afterward, Trent Strasburg says, the program will expand to other parishes (counties) and he hopes Sarge Wright’s work will inspire similar efforts in other states.


City officials presented Wright with a proclamation as a gesture of appreciation. While calling the experience “one of the highlights of my life,” Wright says he also was filled with heartache at what New Orleans has suffered.


“The city has lost thousands of its school teachers, police and fire veterans who cannot return because of a lack of housing …. At least one fourth of New Orleans still has no electricity [besides in] FEMA trailers. Over 60 churches and 90 pastors were left without facilities to serve from, their members moved to other places, many never to return because there is no housing available. Suicides and mental health issues are taking [their] toll …. Many high-rise hotels and corporate buildings downtown stand unused because of mold and other damage,” he states.


Still, there are hopeful signs. He notes that hundreds of rehabilitated homes and Habitat for Humanity houses have become available, some small businesses are opening, and “Many white and black leaders are committed to a process of rebuilding the damaged city and ridding it of some of the ills which plagued the area for decades,” he says.


Wright says he is “elated” that 41,000 volunteers from this country and abroad “have given long and arduous days of labor in rebuilding many of the homes,” providing some badly needed hope. It is an illustration, he says, of Nehemiah 2:18: “‘Let us rise up and build.’ And they set their hands to do this good work.”

 – Sheila Stroup of The New Orleans Times-Picayune contributed to this story.