By Sue Botos
Don Santa-Emma laughs when he says that he has retired about five times. But as the director of the All-Ohio State Fair Band told West Life in 2011, “The older I get, the heavier the baton gets.”
After the band’s last performance at the 2015 Ohio State Fair, Santa-Emma, 75, quietly laid down his baton and took his final bow after 17 years on the podium. He was only the fifth leader of the band, composed of 200 elite high school musicians from throughout the state, since it was founded in 1925.
“I’ll miss the kids the most. They’re exciting, and believe it or not, they can be funny,” Santa-Emma said during an interview at his Rocky River home. In addition, he said that he has enjoyed working with his staff, which included his wife, Pat, whose health made both of their retirements necessary. “It’s hard to part with things you’ve done for 42 years,” he added.
Santa-Emma’s tenure with the band began in 1974 with what he thought was a temporary job, filling a vacant assistant position as a favor for then-director Omar Blackman. “I really wasn’t that interested and I originally agreed to help out for one year. Forty-two years and eight governors later, I was still there,” he stated.
Noting the signed photos of several governors on his wall, Santa-Emma recalled that they had varying levels of enthusiasm about the fair. “Jim Rhodes was a fairgoer, he was there every day. George Voinovich loved to direct the band and he still comes every year,” Santa-Emma said.
A graduate of West Tech High School, Santa-Emma received his undergraduate degree from The Ohio State University, where he was a member of the Marching Buckeyes. The third-generation musician received his master’s degree from Austin Peay State University and pursued doctoral coursework at the University of Kentucky. He served as director of fine arts education for the Cleveland public schools, and is currently a music contractor for PlayhouseSquare, lining up local musicians to accompany touring shows.
While he has always enjoyed his work, Santa-Emma said that he has seen a number of changes throughout his tenure, starting in 1975 when the band became co-ed. “I always hoped that the students would have a musical and social experience,” said Santa-Emma, noting the friendships, and even romances, that grew between those of different backgrounds who may not have met if not for the band.
Aside from the technology that has eliminated pay phone lines in the band’s dormitory, Santa-Emma said he is impressed with the vast interests of the teens. “I’m amazed what the young people know these days. I learned something every year.”
Much of that knowledge involves travel. “(Going) to Columbus used to be a big deal for some. Now, with their local bands they go to Europe and Disneyland.”
He added that within the last 10 to 15 years, the emphasis on marching band competitions, especially among larger schools, has made directors reluctant to release musicians for the two-week commitment, which falls at the start of the season. However, Santa-Emma said he never was hurting for participants, as most of the 200-member band participates for more than one season, some students playing for all four years of high school.
Santa-Emma has passed his baton to his former assistant director of nine years, Brian Dodd, director of bands at West Holmes High School.
“I’ve been extremely honored to work with Don,” Dodd said via phone. He added that he has been sending his own musicians to the All-Ohio State Fair Band for over 30 years, and considers Santa-Emma a good friend.
“Don is the heart and soul of the band. He loves the kids and he loves the fair. I’m excited about this opportunity, but no one is excited about seeing Don retire. We’ll still rely on his wisdom and leadership.”
Santa-Emma laughs when asked if he will visit the fair this year. “I might make a sneak appearance, but I’m not going to hang around.” His advice to Dodd? “Have a good time. Offer the young musicians a great experience and send them back better than they arrived.”