Retiring Benzie Band director also a community leader
By Mitch Kennis
Typically, band directors conduct music. Few also conduct the events that rally an entire community.
With a whistle around his neck and a floppy sun hat to hide his fair skin and red hair, Michael Eagan smiles from the front of a sea of red t-shirts. Students carry instruments that glimmer and shine, while the drums keep rhythm to the stride of their feet down the main stretch of town.
“This will be my 24th time doing the parade, the first one being in 1993,” says Eagan, who retired earlier this month after serving 24 years as Benzie Central’s band director. Eagan has led the marching band in Beulah’s Fourth of July parade for nearly a quarter century, and he plans to finish this tradition on a high note, by inviting alumni to join the current students.
“This one is essentially the same thing, except we invited alumni to come back and play in the band,” Eagan says. “They can bring a red shirt and their instrument. If they don’t have their instrument, we’ll hand them a flag.”
The invitation to Eagan’s past students is also open to any alumni who played in the Benzie Central band under the direction of Cameron Tonn or Calvin T. Whitmore, the band directors who preceded Eagan. This could potentially double the size of the usual marching band that tramps down Crystal Avenue, past Myers Granary Antique Market, to South Benzie Boulevard and follows it through downtown Beulah, all the way to US-31. The turnout is expected to make this parade the liveliest in years, though he has had some other lively moments with the marching band.
“I remember one year, all the lights went out just before halftime at a football game,” Eagan says. “I think they turned on the lawn sprinklers, and it couldn’t handle the electric load… but we went ahead and did a full halftime show in the dark! That was kind of a hoot. We had not planned on doing anything like that. And we were down there on the sidelines, and the kids were crowded around me all saying, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ And I asked, ‘You guys want to do this in the dark?’ ‘Well ,yeah!’ There have been a lot of those moments over the years.”
The Man Leading the Notes
Eagan, who recently announced his retirement from the classroom and the auditorium, will be missed. His involvement in this community spanned many schools and grades within Benzie Central schools, including 6th grade beginning band at Platte River Elementary; 7th grade intermediate band and 8th grade concert band at Benzie Central Middle School; and senior high symphonic, marching, and jazz bands at Benzie Central High School.
“The relationship with the kids and the families are the best part of the job,” he says. “I mean, how lucky am I to be able to retire and actually be sad about not [being a part of the next school year]. I still get a shot of adrenaline when a kid gets it, when a kid finally figures out how to play, and the look that comes across their face.”
Eagan remembers when he first arrived in Northern Michigan from Atlanta, Georgia. His wife, Cindy—also a musician by trade—is a Michigan native, and they were married here during the summer of 1992, the same summer that Eagan first began meeting with band parents.
“I came from Atlanta, and I wondered how they would take to a southern accent,” Eagan jokes, a slight drawl still hanging on his vowels.
As the band grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eagan transitioned from using the old stage—which was essentially an extension of the high school cafeteria—to holding all of the concerts in the gymnasium to accommodate the size of the band and the growing number of people who came to see their concerts.
Then in 2001, Eagan was instrumental in leading the charge for the school’s new auditorium, which was part of a construction program that also included an addition to the junior high wing and a brand new elementary school in Lake Ann.
During his tenure in Benzie County, Eagan has also served on the board of directors at the Mills Community House, and he was president of the State Music Education Association. But his students are his legacy.
“They always come in with something that makes me smile,” Eagan says. “They kept me going all these years. The personal relationship with the families is the highlight. The music comes and goes—people remember a few of the performances here and there, but what they really remember are the day-to-day interactions. That’s certainly what I remember.”
This transplant from the south wants to thank everyone in Benzie County who has made him feel so welcome here.
“I came up here really not knowing anyone besides my wife. I can’t thank the people enough,” he says. “To have been a part of this community—I never dreamed I would be accepted on this level.”
The Beulah Fourth of July parade will begin at 1:30 pm on Court Plaza road underneath the US-31 viaduct, with a parade line-up all the way to the Benzie County Government Center.
Photo caption: For the 24th year, Michael Eagan will once again lead the Benzie Central marching band in Beulah’s Fourth of July parade. This year, Benzie Central alumni are encouraged to join in. Photo courtesy of Michael Eagan.