‘A HOMETOWN HERO’
»‘Mantas must and will remain at the forefront of music education in our region’
Their performances have been described as “music from heaven.” The Saipan Southern High School Manta Ray band and Pacific Winds Community Concert band, under the baton of William DeWitt, have taken the island by storm in the past years with their treasure trove of accolades and musical adeptness.
Recently, the public school band won the Gold award at the Los Angeles music festival, to which band founder and director DeWitt called “a fairytale ending” to his career.
“The judges, we would learn later, were most impressed with the level of maturity exhibited by our musicians,” he said. “After the event, tears flowed, cameras clicked, and hugs persisted as we all recognized that this would mark both the end of an era, and the beginning of a new [one], he said.”
DeWitt will be leaving the Marianas later this year to spend time with his parents in California and work on a post-graduate degree.
“Island life will always be in my blood, so I plan to do a lot of paddle-boarding in the Ventura Harbor, swimming at the beach, where the water will be much colder, and hopefully encouraging a few kids over there to pursue music and share it,” he told Saipan Tribune.
His departure has many residents and students reminiscing on his influence, which propelled island students to local, regional, and national stages.
Under DeWitt’s musical wing, both bands have earned prestigious awards. Together, the bands have won Tumon Bay music festival gold and sweepstakes awards for every year they participated since 2008.
The ensemble also brought their musical talents to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
The musicians eventually made their way to the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Westminster Abbey, Disney Land, and Disney Hall, where the Manta Band earned the Gold Award and was the highest scoring ensemble in the festival competition.
Several notable concert band works have been inspired by, composed for, or commissioned by the Manta Band as well—including Marianas Variations, March of the Spinner Dolphins, and Seeds of Music.
DeWitt noted that one of the most significant achievements of the band program reaches beyond the halls of high school. Many alumni, he said, are currently serving as enlisted musicians in the Army National Guard Band.
One 2011 alumnus, Donavan Tudela, even took part in a piece during the gold-award winning performance last week in L.A.
The group’s signature accomplishment, he opined, “is the pride and honor we have brought to our school and hopefully to our community and PSS.”
“It has always been a partnership with our community, and the many individuals and businesses that have financially supported our efforts over the years speak to this point,” he said. “We are extremely grateful for hundreds of contributions, totaling more than a million dollars, over the course of the past decade or so. We’d like to think that those investments have been worth it from the donors’ perspectives. Without them, we could not have done what we’ve done. And, there are too many folks to mention by name.”
DeWitt urges the philanthropists to continue to assist PSS to strengthen the opportunity for young musicians to develop, master, and showcase their talents.
Finding a home in the island community
DeWitt came to Saipan in 1993, not long after getting married to his wife, Lois, and graduating from college. His children, Emily, Abigail, and James have considered Saipan home since then.
DeWitt began his career on island at the Seventh-Day Adventist school in 1993, before becoming a household name. His tenure there lasted until 2000, when he accepted a job offer from principal Dr. James Denight to teach at Marianas High School and modify the band program comprised of 100 students.
That budding enthusiasm for instrumental music education, DeWitt explained, quickly matriculated to Saipan Southern High School, which upon its inauguration in 2002, was prospectively designed to be a magnet school for students with an interest in the arts and technology.
At this juncture of his career, Peter Le’au and Craig Garrison, the upcoming administrators of Saipan’s newest secondary school, persuaded DeWitt to take part in their vision for SSHS.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” he added.
For DeWitt, the past 13 years have been more than just doing his job, it was about fulfilling the dreams of thousands of young people in their journey to make music, share it with the world, and provide better opportunity for others to do the same.
“I am confident that this original vision will be nurtured and expanded at SSHS as I depart the school family I love so dearly,” he said. “Mantas will remain at the forefront of music education in our region.”
In retrospect, DeWitt told Saipan Tribune he would not have imagined the future as it has unfolded.
“I never even dreamed that the aspirations and accomplishments that our students have celebrated since then were even remotely possible in a school that had yet-to-be developed traditions involving concert bands,” he explained. “All I could hope was that in a place teeming with multi-generational musical talent and a universal love for singing, there might be a good chance that students in Saipan would also be passionate about learning trumpet, flute, trombone, or clarinet.”
Music has always been a strong part of the fabric of the Marianas, according to DeWitt. That, he said, premises the success the group has built.
It should be recognized that the program’s has unified a burgeoning culturally diverse student demographic in the CNMI.
The Manta Band program itself consists of Chamorro, Carolinian, Palauan, Marshallese, Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and other pacific cultures.
“They share a common passion for a common dream pursued by up to 250 students annually,” DeWitt said.
The next chapter of the DeWitt’s life will be written in California, something he said he has yet to wrap his mind around. “It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of not teaching here where we have the best students in the world!”
His daughter, Emily, a SSHS alumna, will be attending Pepperdine University in the fall and will be studying music and education. His wife, Lois, is interviewing with schools in the area, and will possibly become a school principal.
Their two younger children, James and Abby, he jokingly said, “are figuring out ways to convince me to take them to In-n-Out Burger every day.”
Generations of musical inspiration
DeWitt’s impact has unequivocally touched the lives of students throughout generations. So much so that an alumnus, Joshua Sablan, will be taking helm as DeWitt’s successor, leading the Manta Band and musicians of the Pacific Winds.
“I am confident that he will not only continue our legacy, but enhance it with his own brand of teaching and conducting,” DeWitt said. “…I am optimistic that our community will give him their full support as they have to me.”
Emily, a four-year band member and bassoon player, said that she has seen the seeds of music her father has planted at SSHS and the island community.
She added, “Many of the students consider him to be a father figure. As his daughter I have been able to see him behind the scenes and have seen just how much the band means to him. The band is truly family to him and we will always be one band, one heart.”
Former band president and 2015 alumnus Jun Seo “Allen” Park sympathized, saying “Mr. Dewitt is like my father. He does everything he can to ensure that his students will receive optimal music education. He often serves as our counselor and offers helpful advice.”
Park added, “He is one of the few teachers on island that truly cares about teenagers and their education. Words cannot explain how grateful I am for his service, and although I am disappointed that he is leaving the island, I am also excited that he will continue to inspire others and plant seeds of music education at his next destination.’
Katrina Cruz, 2014 SSHS alumna, told Saipan Tribune that DeWitt was one of her favorite teachers.
“His efforts to produce greatness out of a group some of the brightest, most talented students in Saipan has truly inspired me,” she said. “Being able to travel and compete in prestigious musical competitions were experiences that have definitely transformed my life in many, many ways. Even when fundraising for these trips and rehearsing for these competitions were tiring—they contributed to the memories that replay in my head even to this day.”
If the sentiments expressed by his current and former students are any indication of DeWitt’s profound impact, one can surely conclude that DeWitt leaves a harmonious musical legacy in the islands with his departure. One that will perpetuate the band’s unmatched infectious enthusiasm and rhythmic precision for years to come.