Laura McBride was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991. But after treatment, she went into remission, got married and had a successful career as a high-school band director.
She held that post at Westfield High since the school opened in 2000 and, by all accounts, created an outstanding program. Sadly, though, the cancer reoccurred two years ago and, last Monday, Jan. 2, finally claimed her life at age 48.
"I THINK that's why she was so driven — because she knew she wouldn't have unlimited time and she wanted to build up the program as strong as possible," said her husband Robert. "We should all recognize that every day is precious; we should all make the most of it. And she imparted that to her students."
An Illinois native, McBride began teaching there in 1980. She obtained a masters in music from JMU in 1987 and was working on her doctorate in wind conducting at the Cincinnati Conservatory when she received her first diagnosis.
Earlier though, in November 1990, she and Robert, of Alexandria, had met at his brother's wedding in Covington, Va. A long-distance courtship followed, and her new beau turned out to be someone as special as she was.
"When she got the bad news [of her diagnosis], I said, 'C'mon out here; let's get married and I'll take care of you while you recuperate,'" said Robert. They married in 1991, settled in Woodbridge and had 13 great years together before the disease reappeared.
"It was always understood that she was on borrowed time, so there were no fights, no pettiness," he said. "We were just happy to be together."
Interestingly, said Robert, "If we'd filled out one of those computer-dating things, we'd never have gotten together. Instead, we supplemented each other. I'd make a wisecrack and she'd make one right back. We were 34 when we found each other, so we really knew [we were right for each other]."
Besides doing systems process analysis, he's a percussionist in a vocal jazz group, so Laura went to his concerts and he went to her students' concerts. Since her life as a band director was so noisy and frenetic, he said, at home she loved quiet things like reading and needlepoint. But during spring break, she and Robert had fun traveling to Europe together.
He was also a big part of her life at Westfield, showing up during band rehearsals and accompanying her and 50-200 students to Europe, each year. "One of her favorite things was to take a select group of students — from Westfield, Centreville, Chantilly, Lee, Fairfax, etc. — to perform every summer, for two weeks, through the American Music Abroad program," he said. "We'd go to some famous cities, but mostly to small towns, and the people were amazed at how well these young students played."
They performed in places such as Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy and, said Robert, "Every parent raved about the changes in their kids because of the responsibility and independence they learned from it. Laura selected kids who'd be ambassadors for their country and, in one Bavarian town, one man thanked us for 'showing us that American aren't what our government says they are.'"
MCBRIDE ALSO liked taking her Westfield students on band trips to competitions in different places than the norm, such as Boston or the Smoky Mountains. And she taught them to always strive for excellence and beyond.
Before coming to Westfield, she was assistant band director at Woodbridge High and then band director at JEB Stuart High for eight years. At Westfield, her bands have consistently earned superior ratings at the Virginia Music Educators Association state convention, the Festivals of Music Awards Ceremony in Boston and the Bands of American Festival in Indianapolis.
"Because of the radiation, she couldn't have kids of her own, so that's why she poured so much love into her kids at school," said her husband. "She wanted to make a difference and she really cared."
McBride had been taking treatments for the past two years, but kept it quiet, said Robert, because "she didn't want it to define her. She fought it as long as she could, but then her body just gave out."
Westfield Principal Mike Campbell said Robert "was Laura's No. 1, but her band was a close number two. She had a long battle with cancer, though. At the beginning of the school year, she said it was back and she was undergoing chemotherapy."
Still, he said, at Westfield's football game against Robinson in November, he sat down and talked with her for 45 minutes, and "she never mentioned a word about being ill, sick or in pain. She said she needed new storage cabinets for the band and talked about upcoming concerts. The next day, she was in the hospital."
Noting that "you learn a lot about people's integrity and character when the chips are down," Campbell said that two weeks before her death, "she left the hospital to come to school, sick as a dog, to prepare the kids for a concert."
But, he said, "Laura didn't want sympathy; she wanted to fight this. She didn't want a lot of people to know, and she talked about coming back to Westfield. She kept going, right up to the end. She loved music and was very dedicated; everything was about her kids doing their best."
THE NIGHT she died, a few hundred people met in the band room. "The kids wanted to talk about what she'd meant to them, and there were lots of funny stories," said Campbell. "Even kids who'd quit the band said she still cared about them and followed their achievements. She wanted them to work hard and, whatever they chose, to give it their all."
One boy told how he thought he wasn't a very good musician, but McBride kept encouraging him. He didn't realize he'd reached his potential until he learned he'd been selected for Bands of America. Said Campbell: "He said his mom cried when the postcard came" notifying him.
Westfield plans to award a band scholarship in her name, and donations payable to Westfield High School Music Boosters Club may be sent to the school at 4700 Stonecroft Blvd., Chantilly, VA 20151. Contributions may also be made to any local high-school band or music-booster organization.
"She was so proud of her kids," said her husband. "And she loved it when, years later, they came back and told her how she'd helped shape them." He hopes her death will remind people to "recognize the good times they're having and live every day like it was their last. Losing a wife is tough, but losing a companion is really hard."
Robert said Laura wrote, "Today is another day," on her cell phone so she'd see those words when she turned it on. "It was like she was saying, 'I've been given another day; I'd better make the most of it,'" he said. "The silver lining is that, seeing how much she suffered toward the end and how weary she was, I know that now she's at peace."