The following is an article written by Souza Scholarship Chairman Bob Curtis about Robert W. Souza. It was published in the Photo News on February 21, 2012.
“Everybody loved him!”
That’s how his former band leader, multi-Grammy-winner Jimmy Sturr remembers Bob Souza, the accomplished musician and music teacher who played behind him and arranged musical numbers for his now world-famous Polka orchestra for 11 years in the 1960’s and 70’s.
“All the guys in the band just thought he was a great guy,” recalled the Polka King from his Florida, N.Y., headquarters. “Aside from being a terrific trumpet player, he also did a good number of musical arrangements for us, many of which we still use today. And Bob even appears on many of our old album covers.”
I did not actually know Bob Souza, but from other people I know who did, I have come to know that Bob was a man who deeply believed in giving back— to his family, his students, his community – you might say he was an “other-centered” rather than self-centered person.
The M-W story begins in 1974
Robert W. Souza came to the Monroe-Woodbury Middle School in 1966 as an instrumental music teacher. During his fourteen years at Monroe-Woodbury, he served as stage band director in both the High School and Middle School, Music Team Leader in the Middle School from 1974, and became the M-W District’s Music Coordinator in 1976.
On his arrival in the District, it was noted that there was a tremendous change in the attitude of students toward instrumental music. Bob was extremely knowledgeable and competent, and demonstrated a fine rapport with students, colleagues and parents. All quickly became aware of his courage and humanity.
Souza arranged and conducted music for M-W district scholarship productions, including “Pajama Game,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” among other shows, and for the student musical “The Sky’s The Limit.”
In addition to his teaching and community theater service, he also played trumpet and arranged music for the Jimmy Sturr Orchestra.
Those are some of the facts of his musical life in the M-W district.
‘A teacher’s teacher’
But it is perhaps more important to hear what his life meant to some of those who knew and worked with Bob.
Retired M-W teacher Keith Riddick taught instrumental music at North Main Elementary:
“I knew and performed with Bob Souza even before I started teaching at Monroe-Woodbury. He and I performed with the Jimmy Sturr Polka Orchestra back in the 70’s and early 80’s, before he became ill.”
Keith recalled: “Bob was a wonderful person and friend. He would do anything for anyone — helping others was what he was about. He loved his teaching job and put a tremendous amount of time and energy into his work. He was also a fantastic trumpet player. I have very fond memories of performing with Bob in the Sturr Orchestra.”
Speaking of this concert series, Keith also noted: “This recital, begun in memory of Bob Souza, always meant so much to me. I’m glad to have performed alongside the very talented musicians of the Monroe-Woodbury School District. I truly hope the community will come out and support this recital, so that the Music department can continue to help raise scholarship money for our deserving students.”
Before he retired several years ago, Don Johnson was one of the last remaining members of the Monroe-Woodbury faculty who had actually worked with Bob Souza.
“Bob was always gentle, and people respected that,” Don remembered of his colleague, with whom he worked from 1972 until Bob’s death in 1980. Don noted that Bob was very encouraging to him, as he started his M-W career as a brand new teacher. “
He had such a love for his subject, his students. He was a role model for a new teacher,” Don said.
According to Don and others, Souza was known as a “teacher’s teacher.”
Shortly after Souza’s death in 1980, retired Monroe-Woodbury Middle School Principal Dick Moomey, with the support of the M-W Teachers’ and Administrator’s associations, decided to memorialize Souza in a special way by creating scholarships in music and the performing arts for high school seniors, as well as underclassmen from grades seven to eleven.
The first Souza fund raiser was held in December 1980 and featured an appearance by the Jimmy Sturr Orchestra. Sturr also recalled how Souza often brought his students to hear him play with his then only locally famous Polka band.
“He’d always have his students with him, sitting right down front,” Sturr said. “He sure cared about those kids.”
“Bob Souza was indeed a man for all seasons. He was also my best friend,” recalled Moomey. “In my 35 years of education, I was privileged to work with many outstanding teachers. But Bob was a star in this galaxy of luminaries. He exemplified character, class, talent, courage, and true humanity.”
“When Bob passed away in 1980, a void was left, which has been partially filled by the Souza Scholarship for the Performing Arts, established in his memory. I am sure, with each succeeding production of the Souza group, Bob looks on with modest pride.”
The concert also provides the opportunity for us and our Souza partners to fund scholarships for deserving Monroe-Woodbury students in grades 5-12, allow us to bring in visiting artists to work with students, and provide financial assistance to the music department when necessary. It is truly an enjoyable evening.
As I said, I did not actually know Bob Souza. But I am certain that he would be both proud and humbled to know that the Monroe-Woodbury Music Faculty, the Souza Scholarship for the Performing Arts, and the Monroe-Woodbury Music Boosters work so hard each year to continue his other-centered legacy of excellence in promoting music among the most talented and deserving students who benefit from these efforts.
To all, I say, “Bravo!”
– Bob Curtis is longtime chairman of the Souza Scholarship program.