The basketball teams have warmed up, the referees have tested out their whistles, the Poughkeepsie locals have filed into their seats at the McCann Arena. But before the men’s basketball game between Marist and Rider starts, the show starring Marist band conductor Art Himmelberger is first.
Himmelberger — who is in the midst of his 33rd and final year as the Director of the Marist College Band — grabs a handheld mic from the scorers’ table. His band, for the day, is a sea of his current students and alumni band members that came back to celebrate their conductor’s last home game. They are wearing specialized jersey shirts with “Himmelberger” on the back with the No. 33. The band starts to play the melody of the Marist fight song.
“You don’t grow a band the way he has by being a wallflower,” said Michael Napolitano, Marist Assistant Director of Music. “He is out there when that fight song is up and going – that is his baby. And you can’t stop him.”
With the scoreboard screen on Himmelberger, he begins to sing the words of the song he wrote 13 years ago and has performed hundreds of times since:
(Shout) — M-A-R —- I-S-T,
MARIST, COLLEGE to victory!
Marist, Foxes, We’re on the run.
Up hill, down hill, having much fun.
We lure our every foe,
Into the Red Fox hole. Rah! – Rah! – Rah!
Scratch them, tear them, rip them a part.
Offense, Defense — right from the start,
We have no fear for our Red Foxes,
They’ll fight on to Victory.
While he sings, Art parades around the court maneuvering around the players and coaches lining up for the National Anthem, Frankie the mascot, and the Marist dance and cheer teams. Through all the activity, the spry 68-year-old man commands the floor.
During his performance, Himmelberger shakes the hand or high-fives everybody within his reach: the players, Marist College President David Yellen, even the referees. As he wraps up his unabashedly high-energy performance, he is slightly out of breath from running around the court, but joy spreads across his face as he waves goodbye to the crowd.
The origin story of the Marist fight song began with an unexpected phone call in 1998. Florida State University called Himmelberger hoping his band could bail them out. Florida State’s football team was three days away from playing Texas A&M at Giants Stadium, for the Kickoff Classic, the first game of the college football season. But their band was not ready to perform. “So, they made calls out and somehow they got to me,” Himmelberger said. “So we put together a 150 piece band to support the Florida State alumni.”
The Marist band had to scramble to learn the fight song to perform it on behalf of Florida State. The opportunity to perform at a sporting event on the national stage was too good to pass up.
Since the band had learned the Seminoles’ fight song, they decided to adopt it as their own and ultimately played it as their fight song for the next eight years.
In 2006, then-Marist President Dennis Murray asked Himmelberger to write an original Marist fight song. It took Himmelberger around a year and a half to finalize the lyrics and melody for the school’s new anthem.
When Himmelberger debuted the fight song at Marist sporting events, he described the crowd reaction as “lukewarm.” But he had an idea to ignite the crowd.
“Initially, I didn’t get out [and sing],” Himmelberger said. “But then I realized people were not getting into it. So I went out with the microphone to start firing them up.”
The fight song and Himmelberger’s performances became the pregame ritual for every Marist women’s and men’s basketball home games. The song is also part of the initiation process for every Marist student, as Himmelberger teaches the song during freshmen orientation and open houses.
“It’s been terrific because people know and recognize Art when they come [to the McCann Arena],” said Tim Murray, the Director of Marist Athletics. “I think initially people didn’t know how to take [him singing], but once they got to know Art it became in good spirit.”
Although Himmelberger is retiring as the band conductor, he will still remain working full-time as the Marist Director of the Music Department.
“Yes, it is hard [to step down],” Himmelberger said. “But I am aware that physically…it’s a very physical position. It becomes harder physically. There is an old saying, ‘the mind is willing, but the body weakens.’”
Himmelberger came to Marist in 1986 after a 20-year service career, including serving in the United States Army Field Band. When Himmelberger first started, not only was there not a Marist band, there seemed, initially, to be a lack of student interest in forming one. For the first band practice that he held, only two students showed up; they were both trumpet players.
“Originally I ran the band from the trunk of my car,” Himmelberger said. “We started with a zero budget. I owned all the music and brought the music stands to campus.”
A major reason why Dennis Murray wanted a band was to supplement the men’s basketball team that was primed to have a big season in 1986. For the first few years of Himmelberger’s tenure, the Marist band was merely a small basketball pep band. Starting out, Himmelberger would play the drums alongside his two loyal trumpet players at basketball games.
After six or seven years, Himmelberger thought the band could expand. “One day I realized, ‘hey we have fair instrumentation and I asked some of my friends to come in and play,” Himmelberger said. “We could start playing some concert literature. Believe it or not, we gave our first concert, I believe, it was at the Marist chapel.”
As the band gradually grew, they eventually upgraded their concert venue from the modest chapel. The college began to offer a music scholarship, which helped recruit students.
Himmelberger is proud of how the band has become, over time, a respected program.
“We are recognized not only regionally, but recognized nationally,” Himmelberger said. “There are people that call us the “music miracle of Marist.”
Flash forward to 33 years worth of performances across the country (including numerous concerts at Walt Disney World, a Presidential Inauguration, and being the pep band for Marist women’s basketball during their NCAA tournament games), late-night rehearsals, holding auditions, and, most importantly to Himmelberger, teaching his students. On March 3, 2019, Himmelberger was surrounded by over 80 alumni from all different class years and over 100 of his current students, coworkers, and his family at his final home basketball game as conductor. The results of Himmelberger’s years of hard work of building the Marist music department from scratch were on display all around him.
He started with those two band players and the 15 kids that were involved with the Marist Choir to now overseeing 18 different ensembles with 450 total members.
“It’s not hard to [reflect]. But I always know that I didn’t do it alone,” Himmelberger said. “We did it all together. You can’t have a basketball coach without a basketball team.”
During halftime, Himmleberger was surprised with a framed Marist basketball “Art” jersey presented to him by some of his band members. “Which is great because Art knows everything that happens when it comes to his band,” Napolitano said. It is now hanging in his office. In addition to the shirt jerseys the Marist band was wearing, another accessory the Marist band department put together was pictures of Himmelberger’s face attached with a popsicle stick made to put on their instruments.
“The last basketball game was kind of surreal,” Himmelberger said. “We had quite the turnout of alumni and it was fun to see alumni with their children.”
A thing that touched Himmelberger about the day was to see former students come back with their instruments in hand. “To also see that many of them are still playing their instruments. That has really been what my focus has been about. So they can enjoy music for life. It’s not just four years at Marist College,” he said.
“When a parent buys you an instrument for you in the fourth grade, they buy a gift for life and you should be playing that instrument when you are 80-years-old. I feel strongly about that.”
For one former student, the reason to return to campus was simple. “Art spent a lot of time for his students, so it only made sense for me to come back and return it,” said Alex Lawson, a Marist Class of ‘17 graduate.
“He had no idea the extent of what we were going to do that day,” Napolitano said. “Just talking with a couple people in the band program, we thought he probably deserved more than a handshake and a thank you. He deserved more recognition.”
After the game, a line, filled with Himmelburger’s students, formed to take photos with their band director. Some took the opportunity to share their favorite Marist band memories with him.
Derek Daffara — a Class of ‘16 Marist graduate — told Himmelberger about his first interaction with him when he was a senior in high school. “I remember Art telling me: ‘this music program, there are no music majors here,’” Daffara recounted. “So everybody is really dedicated because they are either music minors or just really want to be in the band. “
“He told me, ‘you are going to make your greatest friends here and have your greatest memories.’ And he was right.”
Even with the emotions of the ceremony, Himmelberger is far from winding down. He has spent the past few weeks since being honored: holding auditions for students, holding his 9 p.m. band practices, traveling to Albany once a week to guest-conduct, and helping to find his successor as band director.
“The fact that he can do this year-after-year-after-year and still feel inspired to continue. That is something that doesn’t go away,” Napolitano said. “If he has been able to do this as long as he has, we should all find something in our lives to give us that inspiration to move forward.”
“I have a motto about what we are doing here, for the whole music department,” Himmelberger said. “We are always halfway there, you are always climbing. I don’t believe in status quo. I don’t think that there is a level that you are maintaining.”
The tangible legacy for Himmelberger at Marist might be his fight song. That song will play on, even if Himmelberger is not the person in front of the Marist band waving his arms.
It has yet to be determined how Himmelberger’s presence will be replaced to start Marist home basketball games.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Murray said. “I know they are looking for a new band leader now, so hopefully they will come with their own bag of tricks.”
Himmelberger’s other legacy is the same as any other career-teacher hopes to accomplish: “That I have been able to make a positive impact on my students’ lives,” Himmelberger said.
Talking to the people that turned out during his final Marist home game, that impact was obvious.
“Any time somebody messes up in rehearsal he says ‘I love you, but make sure that you do this better the next time,”’ said Niccole D’Arco, a Marist senior. “He makes sure that his students know that he cares about them, that is a big thing for him.”
“He is one of the best people that I have ever had to chance to work with. One of the finest teachers that I’ve ever had,” Napolitano said, who was also a member of the Marist band before joining the faculty.
“[I’ll remember] the warm reception he gave me as a freshman,” said Will Salluzzo, a Marist graduate of 2005. “Every time I have seen him since [I graduated], whether it was weeks or years later, he always stops me and gives me a hug, and asks me about how my family is doing.”
Himmelberger is aware that he worked hard and that he helped — along with the band — to build something special for the Marist campus. “I know to the extent the effort that I have put into it. I’ve given from my heart. It is always been a reciprocal thing. “
“I tell my students, it’s not my band, it’s our band.”
Over the course of his career, he has taught thousands of students. All he wanted from his career was to spread his passion of music.
“You just want to know that something that you have done in this walk of life has had a positive effect on other people,” Himmelberger said.
Edited by Meaghan Roche
Header image courtesy of Marist Athletics. Lyrics to the Marist Fight Song courtesy of Marist Booster Club Website.
* Disclaimer: The article orginally stated that it was Himmelberger’s 18th year as the Marist Director of Bands. A correction was made as it is his 33rd year in that position.