Three short weeks ago, on a chilly spring night, some 150 local high school students played music under the stars.
Seated in a band shell set up on the lawn at Rincon University High School, the band members slid into "The Mask of Zorro." As the movie music unfurled, costumed bandits in big hats and sashes ran among the parents in the audience, waving wooden swords. But rescue from these bad guys was close at hand. Suddenly, a spotlight hit the bandshell roof, illuminating a familiar figure in black: Zorro had arrived.
Decked out in black hat and mask, his black cape flying behind him, Zorro strode dramatically across the creaky roof, waving a sword of his own. He scampered down to the ground and confronted the chief villain. The pair of them engaged in a battle of swords, and Zorro, naturally, emerged triumphant.
Eleven days later, the real-life Zorro, the school's beloved band teacher, Lewis Dexter, was dead. On the morning of May 23, the vigorous figure who had cavorted so daringly on the precarious rooftop died of a heart attack, just three months after his 40th birthday and two months shy of his 10th wedding anniversary. He left behind a young wife, three foster children and hundreds of heartbroken teenagers and young adults, his students during the 14 years he led the school's marching and jazz bands.
His bands won any number of prizes. A year ago, in what turned out to be the apotheosis of his career, his jazz band placed first in a national competition. For the prize, pro band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy came to the school for a day. They taught master classes, and when they played an evening concert in collaboration with the kids, the students were virtually indistinguishable from the pros.
Mr. Dexter (it's impossible to think of him without his teacher's honorific) got his results in part by being a strict disciplinarian. His most famous maxim was, "To be early is to be on time; to be on time is to be late; and to be late is to be in trouble." Attendance at the annual band camp in August's blistering heat was required, and so were the Tuesday night practices. My own son, a second-year trumpeter, found him a little intimidating. At the memorial service last week, graduating senior Derek Chan said that until he got to know him better, he had thought of Mr. Dexter as a benevolent dictator. Mr. Dexter was demanding, no question, but he respected the students, and they understood that he wanted them to excel. Under his tutelage, they did.
And with his mile-wide grin and fixation on SpongeBob SquarePants, he was just goofy enough to endear himself to teenagers. He was famous for jokes that were comprehensible only to band insiders. Example: How many flutists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one, but four to whine about it.
Every year at the spring Arts Under the Stars concert, he dressed up as a character. Last year, he was Elliot in an E.T. extravaganza, dressed in a red sweatshirt and riding a bike full-speed downhill in the outdoor amphitheater. In other years, he was Phantom of the Opera, Superman and even Lawrence of Arabia, complete with a live camel. Every two years, he took the band's 150 teenagers on a five-day trip to California. This year, he celebrated his 40th birthday with them at Disneyland, and they gave him his first-ever set of Mickey Mouse ears. At the memorial service, those ears hung in the church.
I last wrote about Mr. Dexter in December 2002, just after the winter holiday concert, praising him as "the estimable Lewis Dexter." Nowadays, I wrote, at shows of all stripes, from dance to drama, badly behaved audience members destroy performances with their talking, eating, you name it. But not at Mr. Dexter's concerts, not if he could help it. Before the band struck up the music, he would crisply tell the audience, "This is not television. This is live music. No talking."
He also was reluctant to allow fund-raising at concerts. Parent booster Earl Mendenhall had to twist his arm to permit just a short pitch asking parents to send their state tax credits the band's way. And when Mr. Dexter did give Mendenhall just a minute to speak, Dexter insisted "he didn't want to be singled out for praise himself," Mendenhall said.
The memorial service at his church, Palo Verde Church of Christ, was packed with some 700 mourners, and the top students and some returning alumni played. Shell-shocked though they were, the musicians had jumped into emergency rehearsals on Tuesday and practiced almost continuously up until the Thursday evening service. Never mind that they wept as they blew their horns and beat their drums; their playing was, in a word, glorious. It may have been Mr. Dexter's finest moment as a teacher.
Colleagues, friends and students gave eulogies in between the music. Sophomore Connor Mendenhall, tuba player and trumpeter, ended his with a brand-new joke he had written in Mr. Dexter's honor: How many band leaders does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but Mr. Dexter's light will shine forever.