PITTSBURG -- Spread over 60 yards of the football field in precise formation, Pittsburg High School Marching Show Band stood frozen at attention.

Suddenly, the mass of brass instruments and woodwinds, drums, cymbals and bells burst into the group's jubilant signature opening half-time show drill.

As the dress rehearsal got underway, former Band Director Orrin Cross watched his legacy with a mixture of pride and nostalgia.

"It was not all in vain -- it's continued, it's growing, and that's healthy," he said, his voice cracking.

Still sprightly at 80, Cross poured 25 years of his life into building a handful of inexperienced musicians into this 160-member award-winning machine that has earned accolades far beyond Pittsburg. The band has performed at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and will appear in London's New Year's Day Parade in January. Cross also was honored last month for his accomplishments in the performing arts as one the first inductees into the Pittsburg Entertainment &Arts Hall of Fame.

But even more significant than the plaques and trophies are the ways he shaped students' lives and created happy memories that remain with many to this day.

Sporting an Afro and full beard, Cross arrived at Pittsburg High in 1973 with graduate degrees in music and drama and an infectious enthusiasm.


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The school's music offerings had dwindled to a small choir, one guitar class and a marching band with only seven musicians.

That first year was a tough one: Some players didn't know how to march in step to a beat, use the correct fingering on their instruments or even how to read music.

"It was starting from scratch," said Cross, who embraced the challenge.

"We recruited like a madman," he said. "We would take everybody and anybody. If you could carry an instrument, you were in."

By the time of the first football game, the band had quintupled in size. The following year, Cross further raised its profile by having members attend all out-of-town games, and with newspaper coverage of the changes afoot it wasn't long before the group that many hadn't known even existed was a hot ticket on campus.

An esprit de corps took root as teens hung out in the band room, forming relationships with Cross and one another that offered comfort for those from troubled homes.

"For many of the kids, (drama and band) was the best thing they had in their life," he said.

Over the years, Cross also formed two jazz bands and three concert bands, coached students in music theory after school and spent hours choreographing marching routines, including the opening and closing drills that remain a revered tradition at football games.

Former Pittsburg High band director Orrin Cross, 80, conducts the marching band during their practice in Pittsburg on Oct. 15, 2013. The former Pittsburg
Former Pittsburg High band director Orrin Cross, 80, conducts the marching band during their practice in Pittsburg on Oct. 15, 2013. The former Pittsburg High School teacher now spends his retirement running up and down football fields as a high school referee, but he's best known and admired for the 25 years he spent building Pitt High's marching band into an award-winning machine and restoring the drama department. (Doug Duran/Staff)

By the time he retired in 1998, the marching band, affectionately called The Pride of Pittsburg, had evolved into a showcase of musicality and dance moves that had entertained 61,000 college football fans and all but swept the awards at Arizona's Fiesta Bowl National Band Championship.

Cross' uncommon breadth of abilities also led him to restore the school's drama classes, which had disappeared by the early 1970s. In addition, he introduced a course that covered everything from building and painting sets, rigging scenery and using light and sound systems to makeup and costume design.

"I was just amazed at the diversity of experiences we were able to have under him," recalled former student Michael Caldwell, now a university music professor. "He did it all and he did it very well. The school district was getting three employees for the price of one."

He went beyond the curriculum to model character, and he enforced his high standards with tough love.

Caldwell recalls once sneaking into the back of the room after class had started by hiding behind his friend, a tuba player. He only realized his cover had been blown when Cross docked his grade.

"I thought I'd gotten away with it -- and that was the only time I was late for anything," Caldwell said.

Those late to a dress rehearsal or performance experienced similar consequences -- no exceptions. Cross' son lost his chance at a perfect report card when he straggled into a practice after his ride sprung a flat tire, and trumpet student Rob Dehlinger had to cancel a professional gig after discovering that it conflicted with a school practice session.

"I bought myself a calendar after that," he laughed.

But Cross' strict ways didn't undermine the respect and loyalty he inspired.

"It never felt punitive or mean," Caldwell said, explaining that he and his peers knew their teacher cared about them.

Jennifer Wharton only had Cross for 18 months, but his belief in her was life-changing.

He persuaded her to take up the trombone again after she'd dropped it to become a cheerleader, and she credits him with giving her the confidence to pursue a music degree.

"He was the only adult in my life who said, 'Yeah, you're good enough,' " said Wharton, who went on to graduate from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and next month will play in her seventh Broadway musical.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

ORRIN CROSS
AGE: 80
HOMETOWN: Concord
CLAIM TO FAME: Former director of the award-winning Pittsburg High School Marching Show Band
QUOTE: "For many of the kids, (drama and band) was the best thing they had in their life."
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