The marquee outside Westfield High reads, "Laura McBride, WHS Band Director, 2000-05, Always in our Hearts." And that's the sentiment of students, faculty and staff after she died last week of cancer.
"She had a very generous spirit, a boundless imagination and the confidence and competence to take her band students to the top," said Donna Ainger, WHS band booster president. "They've been a Virginia Honor Band for three years, have won several marching band competitions and earned superior ratings at the Virginia State Festival for the past four years."
AINGER SAID McBride "set the bar high for her students" and, "like a riderless horse, the program she built will continue to go forward — because she built a strong model — but it'll take us awhile to get our bearings."
Ainger's son Mickey, 18, who plays trombone in the band, said McBride mentioned her illness to her students in December, two weeks before winter break. "But what surprised everyone was the severity of it," he said. "She said it had been plaguing her for awhile, but she was working through it."
McBride was hospitalized a few days before Christmas at Inova Fairfax Hospital, said Donna Ainger, and died Jan. 2 around 1 p.m., with her husband and two sisters by her side. Although it was a holiday, word spread quickly and, by 6 p.m., students had planned a 7:30 p.m. vigil in the band room.
School Principal Mike Campbell, Assistant Band Director Charles Chaffin, past and present band students, parents and teachers shared memories and anecdotes about McBride. "Band students spend a significant amount of their time with their teacher, traveling to events and at rehearsals, so there's a much stronger bond than normal, student/teacher relationships," explained Mickey."
"The band room is everyone's haven, before and after school," he continued. "So the one positive thing about this is that everyone in band has everyone else in band to share the grief with. It was especially hard on the seniors who've known her for four years."
Mickey said McBride considered her students a large part of what kept her going, and "it was reciprocal. And she always told us to not become satisfied with our level of musicianship and to never settle."
Chaffin called McBride a close friend and colleague. With such a large band program, they often spent 60-70 hours/week together, so her death was a tremendous loss to him, both personally and professionally.
"SHE WAS a pleasure to work with because of her great passion for students and music," he said. "We had lots of success in our band program in awards and trophies, but our biggest success was in how we inspired our kids. She led a short life, but it was a rewarding life; she touched a lot of kids."
Chaffin said the Westfield students and parents motivated him and McBride to work so hard. And, he said, "Now she's motivating us, too." Senior Brittany Bennett and McBride both played clarinet, and Bennett called her teacher a "great musician, strong willed, confident and dedicated to her students and the music program."
"She taught me to express myself through music and told me, 'Stand firm in what you believe in, always," said Bennett. "She told us, 'Don't stop because of me.' She'd want us to keep going and just remember her."
Clarinetist Gina Davids, 17, said the band room was their second home. "We were Mrs. McBride's children because she didn't have any kids, and she was like our mom." Added Monique Perry, 17, "She had confidence in us, even when we didn't, and she pushed us to be better people and musicians."
Senior Jaime Pletzke plays euphonium (tenor tuba) and says McBride "had a strong passion for music that rubbed off on us. She also taught us life lessons. She said, 'If you're going to do something, do it to the best of your ability.'"
Clarinetist Susie Kwon said the toughest thing is that "we didn't get to say goodbye to her. A lot of us thought she was coming back in January." Said sophomore Elise Haug: "I miss her a lot. She was a really big inspiration to us all."
Bass clarinetist Brittany Jackson said McBride also wanted her students to do well "when we're older, raising families and out in the job world. She always looked out for us, and knowing that she's never coming back is really hard."
Junior Shandi Anderson said McBride taught her compassion for others and was always there to comfort and listen to her. And trumpet player Moira Andersen recalled how, during trips, "She'd walk down the bus aisle, sample all our snacks and listen to our music. She knew everyone's name and knew us personally."
MCBRIDE ALSO mentored Centreville High's band director, Beth Boivin, when Boivin student taught for McBride's classes at JEB Stuart in 1996. They remained good friends through the years, doing crafts together and hanging out socially with other school band directors, whether going out to dinner or visiting on the McBrides' deck.
"She was a fiery personality and, at our state band director meetings, she'd bring up controversial subjects and say, 'This is what I think,'" said Boivin. "She loved being a band director and she loved Westfield. It was absolutely a dream for her to open that school. She lived every day to the fullest; I can't believe she's gone."